I’ve been curating (at least in my own mind), a retrospective film series entitled “The Most Important Films of the Reagan Era.” This ongoing series, which is currently in regular rotation in my living room and not really anywhere else (museums and arthouse theaters — call me) eschews the predictable mainstream Oscar winners of the decade and focuses instead on forgotten, obscure, and misunderstood, preferably ones in which ninjas spit spiky jacks into gangsters’ faces. The series includes most of the films that I feel defined the decade, or at least defined me during that decade. Streets of Fire, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, Flash Gordon, Commando, Howling II, Breakin’, Krull — the roster is deep, to say the least, and even the bench warmers could be starters on any other team.
If you are familiar either with me or with my work on this site, it probably comes as no shock that I rank Gymkata as one of the most valuable players on this amazing and occasionally sparkly team. I’ve been pushing this movie on people for decades, armed at first with little more than my cherished VHS copy in its oversized gray MGM/UA box. Since then, and much to my delight, Gymkata has become a touchstone of pop culture references. People know it, even if they haven’t seen it, and knowing, as you know, is half the battle. And while some people get irritated when something they’ve been name-dropping for years suddenly gets embraced by the larger mainstream non-mainstream society (Chuck Norris karate jeans being the most recent example), I bear no ill will toward those who are late in coming to Gymkata. Lord knows there are plenty of things for which I showed up late. I don’t consider it to be some secret to be guarded jealously and to the death by fanatic soldiers armed with weird masks, AK-47s, and scimitars. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who have the word “gymkata” on their lips, the better.
I saw Gymkata when it first made the rounds on cable television, a glorious belle epoque during which you could expect to see Beastmaster, Revenge of the Ninja, and Sword and the Sorcerer on an almost daily basis — and in fact, you would even enjoy watching them on a daily basis. I didn’t know a whole lot about the sort of films I would one day grow to obsess about — or at least, I didn’t know about them as a viable academic field of study where one could obtain a PhD from a number of unaccredited but well-respected institutions of higher learning located in the various former Soviet republics. I knew it was something special then, and even when I went through that phase where I was discovering Hong Kong action films and thus turning my nose up at anything from the United States, Gymkata remained entirely free from criticism. The world of American-made martial arts films has never been a bastion of quality filmmaking or fight choreography. And yet I am mysteriously drawn to it. Like bloody scenes of carnage as I pass by a car wreck on the interstate, no matter how hard I try, I cannot avert my eyes from films like Marked for Death or any of the eleven thousand Bolo Yeung films that were made during the 1990s. I could seek counseling, try to find help for this problem I have, for my vast knowledge of Dale “Apollo” Cook films or ability to recount the plots, however thin, of Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s five hundred or so Bloodfist films.
But in the end, no counseling need be sought. These days, I have made my peace with American martial arts films, accepting that I like them just because I like them, and not trying to justify in any ironic “so bad they’re good” way. At the end of the day, even though the acting is terrible and the martial arts are often worse, I just like them. And I think I first contracted this affliction in the mid 1980s after watching Gymkata, even if it remained in a dormant state throughout the early half of the 1990s when I was busy getting hip to Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Gymkata absolutely enthralled me. I mean, here was a movie that was bad. Really bad. Few others in the world liked it, let alone continued to watch it and recommend it to people who would invariably come back with looks of anger permanently etched upon their faces and ask, “Why?” Doubters to a man, and who was proven right in the end? Now, in the era of DVD and throw-away pop culture references, we have become legion enough that, during a public vote held through Amazon, MGM found themselves compelled by the voices of freedom, democracy, and anyone who likes pommel horse fight scenes to put Gymkata out on DVD. Now, instead of being met with curious glances and mutters of, “He seemed like such a nice boy,” when I profess my love for Gymkata, people instead rally round me, and clad in Haggar comfort-fit slacks and nylon windbreakers, we run through the streets in victory, stopping only when we see a set of parallel bars on which we need to swing and twirl about.
The action of Gymkata revolves around Olympic Gymnast and pommel horse legend Kurt Thomas. In Gymkata, he plays a gymnast (wow!), in much the same way that 1984 Olympic Gold Medal Gymnast Mitch Gaylord played a gymnast in his one and only film (that I know of), American Anthem. Now if you want to see a bad gymnastics movie, there’s your movie for the night. I assume that in the 1980s, Mitch and Kurt and fictional gymnast Lance Stargrove all hung out together, talking about the glory days, hand chalk, and the merits of a well feathered hairdo.
The government recruits Kurt Thomas, who I guess has a character name here but will still be referred to as Kurt Thomas, to compete in a deadly game where the price of failure could be your life. This game is creatively called The Game. The nations of the world each send their best athletes to the small mountain nation of Kabrastan or some such fake place populated by people who are vaguely Arabic, vaguely Nepalese, vaguely Tibetan, and, well, at least a little bit Australian since Richard Norton is among them. Whoever wins the game — if anyone at all wins — will have their one wish granted. Not a wish like for the ability to teleport or turn into a sexy woman whenever you feel like it (my two main wishes). No, they are just lame favors. Like the US wants to build a radar station or something. Great wish, guys. We really need another radar station. The trick, however, is that in the history of The Game, no one has ever successfully completed it. Kurt Thomas wants to go because his dad competed in the game before, and mysteriously disappeared. Actually, if people who lose The Game all get killed, it’s really not that mysterious a disappearance, I suppose.
To prepare, Kurt Thomas must endure the most rigorous training regiment ever devised by man, so that he may create the martial arts form known as “gymkata” — a blend of karate and Kurt Thomas’s own special brand of impressive floor exercise and tumbling techniques. Most of “the most intense training ever” involves hanging out in the woods with Tadashi Yamashita, who forces Kurt Thomas to do things like backflip into a pile of leaves. Seriously — are you training to take on the world’s greatest athletes in a deadly game where the cost of failure could be your life, or are you just warming up for the Fall Harvest festival? Scenes of Yamashita serving Kurt Thomas some delicious hot cider on a hayride were not included, unfortunately.
The true test of skill, however, consists of Kurt Thomas having to walk up some stairs on his hands. I’m not saying that being able to do that isn’t impressive, but I’m not sure how useful a skill it’s going to be in The Game. Heck, even backflipping into a pile of leaves could be seen to have some practical application if, say, you needed to quickly hide in a nearby pile of leaves or you were Dennis the Menace and wanted to mess up the leaves Mr. Wilson has been diligently raking all morning. But “walking up the stairs on your hands” has a storied and time-honored tradition of being the ultimate test of one’s martial arts prowess. Even Remo Williams had to do it. No matter how many times you catch an arrow or break breaks, you won’t get that “this montage is over and your training is complete” nod from your old master until you finally reach the top of the stairs on your hands.
For some reason, the cute daughter of the Kabrastani (Tetchie Agbayani) king decides to help Kurt Thomas train for The Game. She suspects treachery perpetrated by Richard Norton, who goes through the entire movie wearing a furry bathroom mat. He’s supposed to be evil because he wants to overthrow the king, and because he cheats when serving as one of The Game’s primary obstacles, but considering that the king regularly hosts horrific bloodsports for his own amusements, it’s entirely possible that Richard Norton is a courageous freedom fighter around whom the whole of the population would gather as he led them out of this barbaric dark age and into an era of peace and freedom. At the same time, though, he wears a furry bathmat vest, so I guess the king, whatever his penchant for staging elaborate atrocity shows, gets the edge.
Intrigue faces our heroic duo at every turn, as people shoot at them and randomly throw spears in their direction as they wander down the crowded streets of more vaguely Central Asian nations. There are so many bizarrely staged encounters with “the locals” that the film at times takes on a purely hallucinogenic air, not entirely unlike that surreal sense of weirdness that permeates every frame of that other great pillar of classic 80s cinema, Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. Luckily, the cities of the Middle East and Asia are littered with gymnastics equipment, allowing Kurt Thomas to use nonparallel bars randomly located in alleys to his advantage as he fights using the deadly art of gymkata, which consists mostly of flipping back and forth and spinning around on bars until assassins politely and slowly walk toward you so you can eventually kick them in the face as you spin around.
Kurt, aided by the princess, also has to get into Kabrastan, as no roads lead to the nation and no planes fly there. This is a good excuse for one of those five-second shots of someone rafting down a river, which are surprisingly commonplace in action films of the 1980s. When The Game finally gets going, Kurt Thomas and the princess quickly uncover Richard Norton’s heinous plot to free Kabrastan from what I now assume to be the iron grip of terror in which the current king holds it. But never mind that. Norton wears that fucking vest, and the king has a cute daughter. Maybe if Norton called frequent co-star Cynthia Rothrock in as reinforcements, he’d be faring better. As it is, his army is comprised almost entirely of guys whose sole skill seems to be standing at the edge of cliff, getting shot with an arrow, then yelping and falling over the cliff, clutching wherever they need to hold the arrow in place.
The greatest athletes from the four corners of the globe are, for the most part, doughy middle aged-businessmen looking losers in bad 1980s nylon jogging suits and even worse hairpieces. No wonder no one has ever survived The Game. I mean, this is the best the world has to offer? With the exception of Kurt Thomas and Hong Kong action actor and notable egomaniacal wash-out Conan Lee in a small role as a guy who dies pretty quickly, these dumpy nobodies remind me more of those yuppie guys who used to powerwalk through the mall on their lunch breaks for exercise. These goofy out-of-shape 40-somethings with headbands, jogging suits, and a giant 1980s cell phone speed walking through the mall — your town had them too, right?
Anyway, they have to do stuff like climb ropes and run through a town of crazy cannibals while Richard Norton and his army of ninjas shoot arrows at them. Kurt Thomas almost dies in the Town of Crazies, but luckily there is a pommel horse in the town square that he can incorporate into his fight against the 80-year-old senior citizens trying to poke him with wooden pitchforks and other implements often carried by crazed cannibalistic peasants from 1172 AD. That alone is worth the price of admission, but think of all that other good stuff we got to watch! Random gym equipment, an army on Ninjas led by a man in a furry vest, martial arts, gymkata fury, a princess who strips down to a form fitting black bodysuit, Cold War paranoia, super intense training where the ultimate test of skill is the ability to tumble in leaves and walk up the stairs on your hands, and all sorts of wild action and exotic locations modeled after Pakistan and that place from The Man Who Would Be King. Truly Gymkata is a pantheon film, the absence of which from your life makes existence just a little bit more hollow.
Release Date: 1985 | Country: United States | Starring: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton, Edward Bell, John Barrett, Conan Lee, Bob Schott, Buck Kartalian, Eric Lawson, Sonny Barnes, Tadashi Yamashita, Sharan Lea, Zlatko Pokupec | Screenplay: Charles Robert Carner | Director: Robert Clouse | Cinematography: Godfrey A. Godar | Producer: Fred Weintraub | Availability: DVD (Amazon)