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  • Nick Karner

Gymkata (1985)

What did they think was gonna happen in 1985? Gymkata dojos on every corner? Yes, the fitness revolution of the 80’s was in full swing. Fad diets, Jane Fonda’s workout tapes, Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley hocking the Total Gym on infomercials, and James Bridges’ Perfect was released only a month after Gymkata’s world premiere. Could the early release of the Kurt Thomas-starring actioner be why John Travolta’s drama about deceitful journalistic tactics failed at the box office? I guess we’ll never know, but one thing is certain. I don’t recall seeing any bar work in Bloodsport, Karate Kid: Part Two, or Above the Law in a post-Gymkata world.

Gymkata (1985) can’t even be regarded as a ‘high concept’ idea. You’ve got a guy who does gymnastics...why not let him kick some people in the face while he does his thing? To the film’s credit, it only contains a single pommel horse scene, so there’s some level of restraint. I’d have expected at least 4…or 20. At the center of this ludicrous enterprise is Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas, who had his charisma surgically removed before filming began. This is clearly a vehicle for a non-actor to utilize his unique talents but, try as he might, he’s just not a movie star. His career was marred by rotten luck despite being a superior athlete. He’d win gold medals, but not at the Olympics. As dramatized in Robert Towne’s Personal Best (1982), hundreds of American athletes were denied the chance to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics due to the U.S. abstaining from the games. Thomas was a favorite to win that year and although he attempted a comeback later, he’d grown too old and never achieved the worldwide fame and Wheaties box stardom his contemporaries experienced.

Armed with a terribly era-appropriate mullet, Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, a superstar gymnast who only performs in near-total darkness. Prior to this, we get one of the most boring credit sequences ever as a close-up of a lonely bar is all we see while the names fade in and out. Since the movie barely clocks in at 90 minutes, I suppose they needed to milk that sucker for all its worth. As weird Jaws-like music plays, we get cross-cuts between Jonathan’s dazzling bar prowess with what appears to be feudal Japan or something like that because warriors on horseback chase after a man running for his life. The possibility of a time-travel movie is short-lived, however, as we see the runner wearing pants that can only be described as hospital scrubs. There’s also a big white guy on a horse, wearing a vest that looks to be made from a quilt. This is Zamir, our villain. He’s played by the great Aussie actor/stuntman/fight choreographer Richard Norton, whose work includes Mad Max: Fury Road and The Octagon, as well as stunts on Suicide Squad and Triple Frontier. Of course, he doesn’t look anything like a ‘Zamir,’ but we’ll find out many inhabitants of fictional country Parmistan have a fair complexion. Jonathan’s father, Colonel Cabot (Eric Lawson) has to climb across a gorge using a rope system to get away. He seems to be involved in some sort of ‘game.’ Zamir aims his bow and arrow and says, “You believe the fool” before striking him down. The scream and fall are a little off cue, with the scream happening far too early.

Jonathan has just finished his latest spectacular performance and a groupie is all set to jump his bones, but some business guy ‘clam jams’ her. He turns out to be an agent with the SIA (Special Intelligence Agency) named Paley (Edward Bell). Needing very little convincing, Jonathan agrees to compete in ‘the game.’ It appears to be a simple 900 year-old ‘Running Man’ situation where a contestant gets a head start and goes through obstacles while guys who are not ninjas but are absolutely dressed like ninjas chase after them. If you win, you get to make a wish. This being 1985 and the Cold War is still raging, the SIA wants Jonathan to win so they can build a monitoring station that would be instrumental in warning people of an oncoming nuclear war. He emphasizes the need to “save lives,” so I immediately assumed this guy had more devious plans up his sleeve, but, SPOILER! He’s just some agent and he totally wants to help people. It’s hard to say if he’s certain with whom he’s speaking since a shot of Jonathan at the table is glaringly out of focus, but I guess he figured it out.

Jonathan’s father was an SIA operative, but why they decide to send this untrained kid with no fighting skills into a life-or-death situation is beyond me. They provide him with some trainers, including Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani, who took a shot at international stardom in the mid-80’s but thrived as a TV actress in her native Philippines), the princess of Parmistan. She ties him up within 5 seconds of meeting him. There’s a wise Eastern Trainer (Tadashi Yamashita, the Black Star Ninja in American Ninja) who spouts insane words of wisdom like “Read the air. It has much to say to you,” while forcing Cabot to walk up the stairs on his hands. He’s also got a falcon, but never mind. Then there’s the Western Trainer (Sonny Barnes, Toro in the great Truck Turner) whose harsh but fair attitude will strengthen Jonathan’s resolve.

In one of the more famous scenes from this minor cult classic, he finds Rubali in the kitchen, where he carries on a conversation with the silent princess by flipping (literally) back and forth, speaking for the both of them. It’s insane and silly, but hot as shit apparently, because she reciprocates. He moves in on her like David Caruso in Jade, just without the talent.

Cabot and the princess travel to Karabal, on the Caspian Sea. We know it’s on the Caspian Sea because they keep telling us it’s on the Caspian Sea. There’s even a title card. We meet a weapons expert who supplies Jonathan with some cool weapons like a super strong axe and a device which fires razors. I’m sad and bemused by the fact that none of these weapons are ever used for the rest of the film. I mean, literally. He’s given weapons and nothing comes of it. Even after the Princess is kidnapped while they saunter through a bazaar and touch everything, his body is the only weapon he’ll need.

Ugh. We get our first taste of the legendary art of “gymkata” and…it’s pretty much just ninja stuff. It’s great to see a lead actor do all of his own stunts, but his flipping just comes off as hokey and the bad guys just stand there, ready to get whacked in the face.

Even though the weapons expert turns out to be bad, he points Cabot in the direction of a “terrorist training camp.” How does he know who kidnapped her? Perhaps if I’d read the novel, I’d get it. He’s a cocky little prick but he gets the job done; infiltrating the “camp” and rescuing her lickety split. What turns out to be the most problematic aspect of the film besides its wobbly premise is the blatant sexism on display here. Princess Rubali disabled Jonathan in a few seconds upon first meeting him and she’s been training him. She should be a warrior woman, but negatory on that communique, Chief. Here, she does a single karate chop, then stays behind Jonathan for the remainder of the escape. There are multiple times throughout the rest of the film where she should be kicking a ton of ass, but she just stays back while the men do the fighting. It’s highly insulting.

The chase through Karabal (actually shot in the drab-looking Yugoslavia) is very confusing, but perhaps that’s the point. They run down endless alleys and the faceless henchmen can only fire their machine guns at random bottles which seem to be everywhere. They round the corner and…there’s a bar above the alley. You know what’s coming. Sure, they could just keep running, but no way, Jose! He hops up on it, spins over and over and takes them all out, one at a time. Convenient. They get back to the safe house and wouldn’t you know it, their contact is dirty. Gymkata is no match for a freakin’ gun, but Paley shows up out of nowhere and guns him down. Will he stay with Jonathan to make sure he gets to Parmistan safely? Nah…it’ll be fine.

They arrive by raft and a fighter shows up. He pulls a knife to stab the raft, but pauses for an exorbitantly long amount of time before Jonathan gets the message to fight. Once again, the princess stands around and Cabot fights a ton of dudes in black pajamas. He smacks them up real good but then gets a bonk on the noggin. He wakes up to the most disturbing sight of the entire movie: an androgynous manservant with no tongue and a seriously creepy disposition wiping him down. Zamir is hanging around but it’s never made clear why Jonathan was attacked upon arrival in the first place. Yes, Zamir has it out for Jonathan, but once he was overpowered, shouldn’t he have just been killed? It seems to have been a fight scene for a fight scene’s sake.

Cabot and the rest of the contestants survey a scale model of the course while being educated on its many hazards by the king of Parmistan, also known as the Khan. Parmistan being fictional, I’d at least expect the leader to be of Asian or perhaps Middle Eastern descent. Instead we get, straight from Detroit, Buck Kartalian, a very American actor best known as a former body builder/wrestler-turned-actor who appeared in the original Planet of the Apes (1968) as well as Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Rock (1999). The man is as American as apple pie and even alludes to his duty to “play king.” I incorrectly assumed that his outlandish persona as a ‘khan’ was just a ruse and he was a plant or a government agent. Wrong again. He’s just some guy who happens to speak English but is also the rightful ruler of all that he sees. Oh, and he’s somehow the father of the very Filipino Princess Rubali.

There’s a sort-of rehearsal for ‘The Game’ as three criminals are let loose and Zamir, Jonathan, and the rest of the gang go after them. There’s also a Hunger Games vibe going on here, but I’d prefer if it were Battle Royale instead. The rules seem nonexistent. One criminal makes it to the ropes like Cabot’s father did, but a pursuer can only shoot him with an arrow if he too is on the rope. It’s stunningly dumb, but at least when the guy gets shot down he lands on the rocks below with a deafening thud.

“Yakmala!” A nonsense word that I assume is the Parmistanian equivalent to ‘L’Chaim!” There’s a celebration with many games, including one in which two men on horseback try to throw nets over each other. What the hell is going on? Zamir is the Khan’s most trusted advisor and tradition dictates that he will marry the princess. This doesn’t sit well with Jonathan, of course, but he’s got a late party crasher to deal with at the moment.

Very unenthusiastically, Thorg, a bear of a man played by former arm wrestling champion Bob Schott, strides through the crowd. How this man wasn’t in Over the Top (1987) I have no idea. He’s apparently another Olympian and Jonathan is a big admirer, but Thorg just ignores him. I’d expect some kind of reaction from Kurt Thomas, but he just stares blankly and sits down. Zamir warns Jonathan that Rubali “is mine,” and then hops up to give a super random weapons demonstration.

Later that night, Rubali tells Jonathan that the young people, known as ‘The Twenties,’ want Parmistan to join the rest of the twentieth century. I assume ‘The Twenties’ are the 80’s equivalent of ‘millennials.’ The Khan plans to make a grand announcement about joining the rest of the world but she’s worried Zamir will oppose it.

‘The Game’ begins and Jonathan gets a good kick in the face. Zamir’s henchmen take the Khan and Rubali up to their chambers under the guise of protection, but really, they’re just being held hostage. Zamir refuses to fight fair and Thorg seems to either be on their side or just an asshole. Not very clear. A runner gets across the gorge but a judge steps over and kills him immediately. Since the rest of the judges do little more than point flags for the contestants, why not kill everyone so Zamir can win? It’s deeply confusing and just plain dumb.

For the final leg of the challenge, we’re told there’s a village they must pass through made up entirely of crazy people. Cannibals, supposedly. It’s the eeriest and most well-made section of the entire film. The inhabitants are suitably weird and the fog machines are on overtime. It’s mildly nightmarish and for a decent stretch, the movie becomes watchable. These nutcases make freaky sounds and even take down Thorg, who stumbles into a pig pen. He gets a pretty rough death by being pitchforked by three crazies. Jonathan keeps seeing the other competitors lying dead but his compassion for them rings false since we literally don’t know any of them. He’s constantly attacked, most memorably by some guy who has a plaster face sculpted on the back of his head to avoid detection. It’s actually kind of unsettling.

Of course, he makes it to the town square and gets surrounded, but wouldn’t you know it? There’s a goddamn, motherfucking pommel horse. He hops on that inanimate sucker and starts to do his thing. Swinging around and around and taking peeps out in a whirling dervish of mulleted action, This. Is Gymkata. He climbs up the wall of a dead end, where even the dogs are crazy, and a random ninja helps him. Not so random, it turns out, because it’s his dad. He’s got a bum arm but somehow survived the fall. Does any of this matter? No, because Zamir shoots him with an arrow a few minutes later.

Rubali and her Detroit Tigers-loving dad escape, so she finally gets a little action. Jonathan and Zamir have a final showdown and after jumping around like a monkey, he hops up on Zamir’s shoulders, flips him over, then breaks his neck with his thighs. He’d make a great Bond girl. The Khan commands his people to eliminate Zamir’s henchmen and Jonathan shows up with his dad, an arrow still sticking out of his chest. We get a silly freeze frame and remember that station that needed building? Yeah, let’s just say Gymkata is the reason we didn’t have a nuclear holocaust. You’re welcome.

Gymkata was part of the long-time collaboration between director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub. Their greatest success was 1973’s iconic Enter the Dragon, which made both their careers. They’d work together several more times on such projects as Black Belt Jones (1974), Golden Needles (1974), The Pack (1977), Force: Five (1981), and China O’Brien (1990). Gymkata has some fun moments, but it’s also patently absurd, with a boneheaded script by Charles Robert Carner, who at least gave us the awesome Blind Fury (1989), but also Larry The Cable Guy’s Witless Protection (2008). Poor Kurt Thomas was nominated, but did not win, a Razzie Award for Worst New Star.

The film plays as an obvious attempt to create a brand new style of fighting that could potentially explode all over the world. Unfortunately, the only things exploding are the guts of the bad movie aficionados who watch this dreck and laugh themselves silly. Too bad. I’d’ve liked a whole slew of gymnastics-based fighting movies. How about a quick re-shoot for Rocky IV of that year? The whole thing’s still in Russia. Just…on a bar. And instead of a towel, Paulie has to throw a pommel horse into the ring, bonking Drago in the head. If I can change, you can change! It could work!