Sunday, 20 April 2008

Gymkata (1985)

Kurt Thomas, aided by a medieval pommel horse, unleashes the fury

It was 1985, and director Robert Clouse felt it was time for a new breed of action hero. A slim, 5'5" hero, with a mullet and bad fashion sense. And to complement him, a new kind of film, one that combined the deadliness of martial arts with the fruitiness of spandex and rubber mats. I imagine he then looked down at his coffee table and spotted a dog-eared copy of The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore and the sports section of the newspaper, open to a feature article about Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas. With a hearty cry of "Yakmala!", Gymkata was born. Combining, as the tagline states, the skill of gymastics with the kill of karate, he turned out of a flop that would be cherished/mocked for decades to come.

After an credits sequence of Kurt doing a gymnastics routine in a darkened room (intercut with footage of wild horses) the film opens with a man being chased through the woods by a bunch of ninjas on horseback, led by Zamir (Richard Norton in a furry vest). As the victim attempts to climb across a rope spanning a chasm, he cops an arrow in his back and plummets to his death. He is the latest victim of the Game, an ancient and deadly race that takes place in the fictional country of Parmistan. Any outsider who enters the country must participate, and whoever wins is granted one wish.

So what could Parmistan possibly provide, aside from a lifetime supply of furry hats? Well, it seems that a radar installation in Parmistan would be capable of detecting every other satellite in the sky. Even those on the other side of the planet? That's some location! No outsider has won the game in over 900 years, so naturally the US government want to send in an Olympic gymnast with two months training. Enter Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas) a man with a mullet and a severe lack of charisma. It seems his father disappeared while playing the Game and, determined to discover what happened to him, Jonathan agrees to take part in their plan.

It's montage time! A big black guy teaches him stick fighting, while some Japanese dude teaches how to climb up stairs on his hands, giving us some gratuitous crotch-shots (I wonder how many shots ended up on the cutting room floor because his nuts popped out of his shorts?). The Japanese guy also demonstrates his skill with the kama while blindfolded, which is pretty cool but will never be referred to again (this lack of payoff is a common theme in this film). Also helping Jonathan is Princess Rubali of Parmistan, for some reason. At first she is pretty chilly, mutely whipping out a knife whenever Jonathan gets too close, but he uses his gymnastics skills to put the moves on her, and soon they're making googly eyes at each other during mission briefings.

Soon the two loverbirds are off to Karabal, which, as the film needlessly reminds us three or four times, is on the Caspian Sea. They meet up with their contact, Stork, who shows them a few cool gadgets, but don't get attached to them because they will never be seen again. During a late night stroll, Cabot is attacked by a gang of thugs, which he defeats thanks to an extremely convenient (and pre-chalked) horizontal bar spanning a narrow alleyway. Princess Rubali gets kidnapped and Jonathan initiates a bold daylight rescue. A chase sequence ensues, which is barely decipherable due to poor editing and heavy reuse of footage and locations, and culminates in a car being inexplicably flipped when it hits a pile of empty cardboard boxes.

After a journey down a raging river, the two finally reach Parmistan and are promptly attacked by ninjas. Jonathan unleashes Gymkata, but is defeated by a ninja with a log. When he wakes he is being fondled by a very ugly woman in the Parmistan palace. He is introduced to the other contestants and the Khan of Parmistan explains the rules of the game, but don't bother paying attention because they don't makes any sense and they are consistently broken anyway.

One thing you quickly notice about Parmistan is that the ethnicity of it's inhabitants isn't quite clear. Princess Rubali appears to be South-East Asian while her father, the Khan, looks kind of Jewish. The inhabitants run the gamut from lily-white Caucasian to swarthy Middle-Eastern, and most are clad in turbans and false mustaches. Accents, when present, are completely random. Parmistan is a potpourri of ethnic stereotypes and technologically it appears to be mired somewhere around the middle ages.

In the lead up to the Game, Jonathan also learns than the Khan's right hand man, Zamir, is planning to seize control of Parmistan and marry Princess Rubali. You hear that sound? That's the stakes being raised, my friend! Also a late-entry contestant arrives: Thorg, a behemoth of a man wearing stylin' Wonder Woman bracelets. He takes an immediate dislike to Jonathan, which is understandable.

Pretty soon the game is underway. Jonathan is off to a bad start, immediately clobbered by Thorg just a few meters from the starting line. Keep a look out for the flag ninjas, the poor guys who are reduced to simply holding flags to direct the contestants. You know, this is a job that could easily have been done by a flagpole. Poor flag ninjas. One of the contestants is shot by an arrow as he climbs a rope up a cliff side. Rather than do the same to Jonathan, Zamir takes the baffling approach of lighting the end of the rope on fire, giving him ample time to climb up the cliff before the flames reach him.

Jonathan complains to a flag ninja that Zamir is breaking the rules (apparently you aren't supposed to kill them when they are between "stages") but he is deaf to Jonathan's pleas. Soon they are crossing the gaping chasm from earlier in the film and once again demonstrating his brilliant strategic thinking, Zamir waits until the last minute to cut the rope so Jonathan can escape easily.

Thorg meanwhile, engages one of the other contestants in a bit of fisticuffs. Thorg beats the tar out of him and then chokes him to death with his belt. Jonathan, enraged by the senseless killing of some dude, unleashes Gymkata! Not surprisingly, Jonathan is beaten to a pulp, but remembering the wise words of his master, ducks out of the way of an arrow which skewers Thorg.

And now, the best part of the movie... the Village of the Crazies! You see, Parmistan has an interesting approach to mental health care; they banish the mentally ill to an isolated village and let them fight it out. The place certainly earns it's name. Guys chopping off their own hands. Old women crowing like birds. Dudes in white robes with bare asses. Guys with faces on the back of their heads. Overused fog machines. You can see all this and more in the Village of the Crazies. Dodging crazies left and right, Jonathan is chased by an injured Thorg into a room full of (presumably crazy) pigs. Jonathan escapes through a window but Thorg tastes some village hospitality... a pitchfork through the chest.

One of the fun things about this film is spotting all the desperate ways they manage to incorporate Kurt's gymnastic skills. This reaches a giddy new height when Jonathan stumbles across an ancient stone pommel horse in the middle of the town square! He engages in a gymnastics routine as senseless villagers run into his feet one by one. After beating up a large number of the mentally ill, he attempts a slow-motion escape, but gets stuck when he climbs the walls of a narrow alleyway. After some orgiastic moaning, he is hauled onto the roof by... a flag ninja? He removes his mask... it's Jonathan's dad! After escaping the village, they have just enough time for a tearful embrace before Zamir shoots Jonathan's dad in the back with an arrow. Spurred on by his dad, Jonathan heads to the finish line, but first he's got to deal with Zamir!

Naturally, Zamir kicks his ass at first, but soon Jonathan starts busting out his Gymkata skills. He undergoes a series of laughably redundant flips and tumbles, before wrapping his thighs around Zamirs neck and snapping it like a twig. Victorious, Jonathan heads to the finish line with his father (still alive) and Princess Rubali who, along with her father, has been busy foiling Zamir's military coup. The film ends with a freeze frame and a subtitle explaining that the government got their wish to use Parmistan in the Star Wars Defence Program. Thanks for that, I would have stayed up all night with worry if that subplot hadn't been resolved.

Gymkata is a hoot from start to finish. American martial arts movies of the 80s traditionally casted a martial artist who couldn't act. Gymkata one-ups these pretenders by casting someone who couldn't act or fight. The rest of the cast fares little better, except Richard Norton who is a paragon of bare-chested manliness, despite his earring and rat's tail. It's available on DVD now, but I watched a VHS tape I picked up at a flea market for $2 (check out the sweet cover). That's how Gymkata is meant to be watched. Also drunk, and with friends.

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