Written By Zak Attack
A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love.
Why Did I Watch This?
Gymkata has been part of the terrible movie canon for awhile now, even earning Kurt Thomas a Razzie nomination in 1986 for “Best New Star”. A failure on its theatrical release in 1985, its following slowly grew until it was made available on DVD by Warner Bros. because of an online poll. At this point, Gymkata actually has a significant amount of cultural cachet in the cult film world, having been mentioned multiple times on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and even spoofed in 2007’s Hot Rod. The ludicrous storyline and rumored cheesiness (and low price) put this right at the top of my Amazon shopping cart.
How Did I Watch It?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get anyone to watch this one with me, so it was all by my lonesome on a Sunday afternoon. I picked this up for $4.50 on Amazon.
What Did I Watch?
Gymkata’s success hinges almost exclusively on its ridiculous premise. The United States government needs to place a Star Wars satellite station (no, it doesn’t just broadcast George Lucas movies… learn something about the Cold War!) in the imaginary country of Parmistan. Since “direct military action is out of style” they approach an Olympic gymnast (Jonathan Cabot, portrayed by real life Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas) to enter the country and participate in Parmistan’s deadly “Game” which is required playing for all foreigners who enter the borders. Since I assume this policy would be terrible for tourism, the Khan of Parmistan sweetens the deal by granting the winner any request.
After some intense training from a Japansese guy with a hawk, a black guy on a horse, and the silent princess of Parmistan, (who, unfortunately, do not walk into a bar together) our hero learns how to combine his gymnastic abilities with martial arts. By the end of his training montage Cabot has now bedded the princess and can walk up stairs on his hands. Clearly, he is ready to utilize his mullet for the power of the U.S.A.
He completes the dangerous trek to Parmistan, where he is joined by the other contestants in the pre-Game festivities. At this point, the aforementioned Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani) introduces Cabot to her father, The Khan of Parmistan. Despite being the ruler of this country in the “Hindu Kush region”, this character is played by a white guy from Detroit named Buck. He eagerly explains the rules of the game in his American accent:
- Three mile run across the swamp
- Two hundred foot rope climb
- Half mile run to the gorge
- Cross the gorge on ropes
- Follow the river to the high forest
- The high forest (not an actual obstacle, just a place with trees)
- The village of the damned (the town where they send the suspiciously substantial cannibalistic and criminally insane population of Parmistan)
- Five mile run back through the swamp
If you think this sounds barely more difficult than your average Warrior Dash, in addition, a group of ninjas on horseback will be pursuing the competitors with murderous intent. However, they can only try to murder someone if they are in the same obstacle… because arbitrary limitations definitely make death matches better.
We also meet the The Khan’s most trusted aide, Zamir (Richard Norton), who is planning a coup so he can unseat his leader and provide the satellite station to the USSR. Just to add salt to the wound, despite her relationship with Cabot, he has also been promised Rubali’s hand in marriage. Once he completes his hostile takeover of Parmistan, it is assumed Zamir will become a merciless despot who crushes those who desire the modernization of this clearly backwards country. However, it’s important to note that the kindly “Khan” of Parmistan has been allowing severe human rights abuses against all immigrants and the mentally ill for years. Just saying… really hard to sympathize with The Khan here.
Anyway, as the game starts it’s made clear that Zamir is intent on breaking the rules to make sure that nobody survives the game. He chases after the competitors earlier than is allowed and continuously orders his ninja army to kill competitors that aren’t even in the same stage! Fortunately, Cabot makes it through with the art of gymkata and the help of his father who had competed the year before and was previously thought dead. As a result, we get the final title card that confirms Parmistan granted his request about the Star Wars satellite center. WHOOO! USA! USA!
If an unlikely hero recruited by the government to partake in a deadly competition in a secluded country that doesn’t allow guns sounds familiar, you might be interested to hear that Gymkata was directed by Robert Clouse of Enter the Dragon fame. I don’t know how the same director of the Bruce Lee classic managed to bungle a plot so badly after making a movie that managed to juggle three protagonists, but there you go. Of course he also directed the less than spectacular Black Belt Jones and a movie about giant, killer rats (dachshunds in rat costumes) called Deadly Eyes. So maybe don’t look too much into the pedigree of this one.
The Gymkata choreography is absolutely fascinating in its own awkward way. Kurt Thomas does more unnecessary flips than Two-Face’s coin as he “impressively” defeats his every opponent. At one point he does a cartwheel into a tumble and the guy he’s fighting just falls over out of bewilderment. It reminded me of the “daze” move in beat ’em up video games where you simply do jazz-hands in front of a dude and he stands there wobbling while stars circle his head. Regardless, the need to incorporate gymnastics into all of the fights also results in a lot of finishing shots that just don’t look powerful. At one point he does a backflip by running off a wall and the two guys chasing him just keep running. After he lands behind them he’s still sort of regaining his balance, so he just lightly pushes their heads into the wall and they get knocked fully unconscious.
The gymkata really shines when there is conveniently placed gymnastic equipment just lying around this backwards country for the benefit of the weird fight scenes. At one point he’s running through an alley and jumps up to grab a metal bar that is inexplicably there. He swings around and around just waiting for the pursuing goons to turn the corner. Eventually three of them come around and meet his feet with their face in one of most the comically cartoonish climaxes of any chase scene. The icing on the cake, however, is the village of the damned. After being hunted by a bunch of crazed village people with sharp weapons, he happens upon a structure in the town square that looks exactly like a pommel horse. For obvious reason this is quite the windfall in his chances against the crazed mob.
Even for a bad movie, the pacing of this is distracting. The filmmakers spend an obscene amount of time upping the stakes (Cold War politics! Avenging Cabot’s dad! Zamir’s an asshole! Love triangle! A rival contestant named Thorg is also an asshole!), to the point that it feels like nothing really matters. The audience is so inundated by the clichés that get our character moving, that he’s not even a real character anymore.
Additionally, there are huge sequences that are downright irrelevant and just exist to eat up some of the 90-minute running time. I didn’t mention it in the recap above, but there is a 15-minute portion after the training montage, where Cabot and Rubali meet with a liaison off the Caspian Sea and get some weapons and passage to Parmistan. They literally never use the Bond-lite gadgets that they receive during this section of the film and the character that gives it to them ends up being a traitor anyway. It makes you want to scream at the screen to just move the story along. As a result, a lot of this movie could have been trimmed down in favor for some actual character moments and a more action-packed portrayal of The Game. Case in point, besides the rope climb and the gorge, there really isn’t much to the deadly, centuries-old tradition at all. It mostly consists of Kurt Thomas running around a forest like a chicken with his head cut-off. In retrospect, the idea of the filmmakers making the movie about a “Game” at all seems completely redundant since the government was aware of Zamir’s intentions in the first place.
Was It Worth Watching?
This was pretty damn enjoyable, but keep in mind that the movie looks funnier on paper. While the idea of a gymnastics master learning karate and taking his newfound skill to an ethnically ambiguous country to play in a confusing game with ninjas and pommel horses seems uproarious, the end result isn’t quite as silly as one might expect. Everyone involved seemed to think they were making a serious action film that would vault (pun intended) Kurt Thomas to stardom. Clearly this didn’t happen, but at least they tried. While the story makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, nothing is so ridiculous as to be gut-bustingly hilarious.
That being said, Gymkata is definitely the type of film that needs someone to watch and ironically enjoy along with. Unlike the over-the-top Hard Ticket to Hawaii, the unintentional humor is a lot more cerebral and requires a bigger audience. Observations like, “Why is everyone from this country in the Hindu Kush region either Eastern European, American, or Filipino?” or “Why do they need such a specific plot of land to monitor the world’s satellites? Don’t they know that’s not how satellites work?” don’t really play right unless there’s a friendly sounding board to laugh along with them.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Video