If you look in the “Well, it SEEMED like a good idea at the time” database (and if there isn’t one of those, there certainly ought to be), you’ll find Gymkata quickly enough.
Set the Wayback Machine for 1984, Mr. Peabody. The U.S. men’s gymnastics team has just won gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics and everyone’s pretty happy about it. And someone got the idea that gymnast Kurt Thomas could ride his athletic abilities into a second career as an action movie star.
The very next year gave us the movie Gymkata, and the rest is history.
Gymkata opens with what feels like 10 minutes of Thomas doing his gymnast thing over the opening credits. Two things are noteworthy about this sequence: it’s the only time Thomas ever seems comfortable in front of the camera, and (much to my surprise) this movie is NOT a Golan-Globus production but actually released by a major studio. Reflect on that second fact from time to time over the next 90 minutes.
Interspersed with Kurt’s flipping-and-spinning are scenes of some dude apparently being pursued through the wilderness, and who, while crossing a rope bridge over a huge chasm, gets shot with an arrow by some vaguely medieval-looking guys. Before the audience can do more than say, “Huh?” Kurt finishes gymnasticating and immediately gets taken aside by a Shadowy Government Dude.
Turns out that the U.S. government wants to put a satellite thingy for the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (remember that, my fellow children of the Eighties? Ye gods, sometimes I miss the Cold War.) in the backwater country of Parmistan (pronounced “par-MEE-stan” if you please). But for some reason (i.e., the movie needs a plot) the government can’t just ask or negotiate. A U.S. citizen needs to participate in “The Game” – an annual event held in Parmistan in which participants must run an obstacle course and along the way get attacked. They even have to fight their way through a town that’s populated entirely by criminally insane people. Oh yeah! The survivor/winner gets to ask the Parmistan government for one favor that must be granted. Kurt’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is to win “The Game” and ask the Parmistan government to let the U.S. put the satellite thingy in their country.
Incidentally, I still can’t decide how I feel about the title of this annual event. I like “The Game” for its simplicity, but can’t help wondering if something livelier would have worked better. Maybe something like “Race Toward Your Almost Certain Doom, Charlie Brown!”
I digress. So Kurt goes through one of those complicated training montages (almost none of what he does in this montage has any relevance to later events). Then he meets some shady guys, gets it on with the Parmistan king’s improbably hot (not to mention improbably Asian) daughter, rescues the improbably hot daughter when she gets kidnapped, and spends what feels like half an hour running about the alleys of whatever city they’re in. Oh, and he also defeats some bad guys using gymnastics.
No, really. In this alleyway there’s a pipe going between two buildings that’s exactly the same height and has the same weight support capabilities as those bars we saw Kurt twirling on during the opening credits. What are the chances of that happening? Anyway, Kurt does his spinny thing and clocks the bad guys who conveniently walk into range of his feet.
Then it’s off to Parmistan where we learn the king is a doofus and his right-hand man is the same guy who shot that other dude with an arrow during the “Huh?” sequence of the opening credits. Quelle surprise! Kurt joins in “The Game” and I won’t give away the ending, but the only thing missing was a “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chant over the climactic freeze frame.
Gymkata is one of those movies that gets almost nothing right, so it’s hard to narrow down the list of things it gets wrong.
But I’ll start with Kurt Thomas. Or actually, with the idea of Kurt Thomas as an action movie star. What the moviemakers didn’t take into consideration is that in order to do all that awesome flipping and spinning stuff, gymnasts have to be lithe, tiny, young guys – NOT brawny action dudes. Thomas has boyish good looks and undeniable physical grace and speed, but when he tries to spout tough action hero dialogue he’s about as bad-ass as my seven-year-old. His flat line readings and single facial expression don’t help either.
Another problem is the aforementioned use of gymnastics as a martial art. It just doesn’t work. First of all, the whole “gymnastics combined with karate” concept is so ridiculous even the narrator for the movie’s trailer doesn’t buy it. Second of all, to execute said concept the moviemakers need to give Thomas lots of open space for his flips, the aforementioned convenient pipe, and, in the scene that will possibly make you doubt your sanity, or at the very least wonder just what was in that drink you had earlier, a pommel horse in the middle of town. That’s right. They made a feeble attempt to disguise it as… um… something that’s not a pommel horse? Don’t ask me, I just review these things.
But it’s all a good kind of wrong, and Gymkata is the best movie Mystery Science Theater 3000 never riffed on. There’s so much bad movie gold. I could go on and on but I must single out two things. First, Kurt’s wardrobe, which is always some combination/variation of red, white, and blue. U.S.A.! (Unfortunately the wardrobe includes a sweater that had me debating “Is it gay or is it just Eighties?” every time it was on screen.)
Second, I have to give a shout-out to director Robert Clouse, best known for directing Enter the Dragon. With Gymkata he’s made a movie that combines 1970s kitsch with 1980s trash. I particularly love the overly loud sound effects – a simple punch to the jaw sounds like someone dropped a ham off a three-story building. They don’t make ‘em like this any more.
Long unavailable on DVD, Gymkata is here now for bad movie fans. Unfortunately the extras are limited to a trailer. (I’d have loved a commentary in which the film-makers tried to explain why this all seemed like such a good idea at the time…)