Gymkata (1985) / Action-Adventure
MPAA - R for violence, brief nudity, sensuality and some language
Running time: 90 min.
Cast: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton, Edward Bell, John Barrett, Conan Lee, Bob Schott, Buck Kartalian, Eric Lawson
Director: Robert Clouse
Screenplay: Charles Robert Carner (based on the novel, "The Terrible Game", by Dan Tyler Moore)
Review published August 28, 2011
An interesting attempt to make a unique, highly acrobatic martial arts flick, Gymkata unfortunately falls flat by casting an uncharismatic novice lead actor and further failing by providing a ridiculous storyline. The hook here is that feathered mullet-sporting, Olympics-caliber gymnast Kurt Thomas would be able to use his skills as an athlete to give the action scenes lots of backflips, somersaults, and high kicks that muscle-bound action heroes like Rambo and his ilk just couldn't provide. What should be exciting comes off as silly, as parallel bars, pommel horses, and other traditional gym equipment conveniently find themselves as part of the urban landscape.
The premise is that one of the America's greatest gymnasts, Jonathan Cabot, is recruited by a government organization to travel to a xenophobic Central Asian country (fictitiously) named Parmistan to try to win a nearly impossible and deadly physical endurance contest, dubbed "The Game", to be able to put in a much valued 'Star Wars' defense installation there. He receives specialized combat training in order to use his skills as a gymnast to make him deadly in hand-to-hand combat before he enters the contest, including some special know-how, and romantic persuasion, from a royal Parmistani, Princess Rubali (Agbayani, Ricky and Pete). Trouble is that no non-Parmistani has won the contest in nearly a millennium, and most certainly was the reason Cabot's secret agent father (Lawson, King Cobra) hasn't been heard from since he entered the country.
For all of its dynamic athleticism, Gymkata comes off as rather boring much of the time, with lifeless direction by Robert Clouse (The Big Brawl, Black Belt Jones), who practically made this film before a decade before with Enter the Dragon, and a dead-on-arrival script by Charles Robert Corner (Blind Fury, Witless Protection), based ever-so-loosely on a book from the 1950s called, "The Terrible Game", by Dan Tyler Moore. The look of the film is more ugly than exotic, the acting is mostly amateur hour, and even the highly touted action sequences are edited stiffly. This is most evident during the scenes where the Khan of Parmistan (Kartalian, The Outlaw Josey Wales) comes out and delivers uninspiring words to his people in the capital city of Karbala, who number in the dozens, in what those who catch these scenes while channel surfing will likely confuse with a Mel Brooks movie.
The entire production reeks of incompetence, especially in the sound effects, which not only occasionally don't sound like what they should (sneakers on a dirt road sound like a stick being beaten on concrete), but they often drown out the already poorly dubbed dialogue. Ineptitude seems the worst of its problems until an extended sequence occurs toward the film's climax that has Jonathan traverse through a town run amok with crazy natives, all of whom are missing teeth, and one even has two faces for reasons that defy explanation.
Kurt Thomas, whose skills as a gymnast would indeed be worth watching independent of this film, comes off as quite un-macho as action heroes get, standing far shorter (listed as 5'5" and under 130 lbs.) than nearly all of his counterparts on the screen, and the delivery of his lines as perfunctory as they would be had he had a script in his hand and read it aloud. His fighting skills are weaker than his gymnastics moves (his punches lack punch), so Clouse has Thomas perform his typical whirling and twirling in air while hordes of nameless thugs conveniently run smack-dab into his feet one at a time and get knocked out. Meanwhile, the world's most elite warriors (played mostly by burly stuntmen) are easily dispatched by single arrows they know are coming from hundreds of feet away, while Jonathan, who has only weeks of training, is able to easily defeat crowds of wanna-be ninjas who've been doing it most of their lives.
Gymkata is the kind of movie one only appreciates for its awfulness and inherent silliness than anything else, so unless you're looking for an action film you can make fun of with your friends, there's little reward. It's a bit of a cult film for its badness, with its own share of fans who love every terribly conceived, yet surprisingly earnest, second of it.
©2011 Vince Leo