Directed By: Robert Clouse
Starring: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton
Tag line: "The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate"
Trivia: The film debut of Kurt Thomas, a former World Champion gymnast and his only starring role in his career
Robert Clouse, the man who directed Bruce Lee in the Kung-Fu classic, Enter the Dragon, also helmed 1985’s Gymkata, which starred former gymnastics champion Kurt Thomas as a world-class athlete fighting against the forces of evil. Interestingly enough, Bruce Lee fought a similar battle in Enter the Dragon, but as far as these two actors go, this is where the similarities end. One of the biggest stars of the ‘70s, Bruce Lee was a master of Jeet Kun Do, a martial art he himself devised. Kurt Thomas could swing from a pole. Bruce Lee was an action icon with lightning-quick reflexes. Kurt Thomas… could swing from a pole. When Bruce Lee squared off against an opponent, odds are that guy was going down. For Kurt Thomas to do likewise, his enemies had to run directly into his feet while he was twirling above them; if they took a few steps backwards, he was pretty much helpless.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, Gymkata was a feeble attempt to create a new kind of martial arts film, starring an actor who has all the personality of a Pommel Horse. Where Bruce Lee oozed charisma, Kurt Thomas seemed allergic to it, but it wouldn’t be fair to single poor Kurt out as the sole reason Gymkata is an embarrassing mess. The truth is there’s plenty of blame to go around.
World class gymnast John Cabot (Thomas) has just been told his father (Eric Lawson) is missing, having disappeared while on a secret mission in Parmistan, a small country situated near the Caspian Sea. Considered a prime location for a missile defense system, the U.S. government convinces young Cabot it’s his duty to complete his father’s mission. So, accompanied by Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani), the estranged daughter of the Kahn of Parmistan (Buck Kartalian), Cabot makes his way into the country and, once there, signs up to compete in “The Game”, a life or death contest all foreign visitors are encouraged to enter. If Cabot wins, the Kahn will gladly permit the U.S. to build their missile base there. But the Khan’s shady right-hand man, Zamir (Richard Norton), has no intention of allowing Cabot, or any other foreigner, to finish “The Game”, and has instructed his personal guards to use whatever means necessary to take Cabot out.
Some scenes in Gymkata are hilariously awful, like the training sequences at the beginning of the movie, in which our hero learns how to climb a flight of stairs while upside-down, walking on his hands (which I assume is not a skill every U.S. operative is expected to master). Yet while the film’s high level of incompetence results in plenty of belly laughs, there are just as many moments in Gymkata where you’ll be scratching your head, wondering what’s going on. Perhaps the most confusing scenes are the various chases through the streets of Parmistan, where Cabot is running for his life from gunmen, sword-wielding martial arts experts, and, at one point, even the criminally insane (don’t ask). These sequences, which should have been among the most exciting in the film, are pieced together so arbitrarily that, as they play out, we lose all track of what’s happening on-screen. How far is Cabot ahead of his enemies? Why don’t they ever catch up to him? Didn’t Cabot already run down this same street twice before? Because we’re never given any point of reference (meaning we rarely see Cabot and his pursuers on-screen at the same time), many of these questions go unanswered. Yes, Gymkata is an amusingly dreadful motion picture, but it’s also a damned frustrating one.
Fortunately, I was able to see Gymkata with a good friend of mine who, over the years, has watched a number of horrible movies with me, both in theaters (such as Superman IV: Quest for Peace) and on home video (everything from 1966’s Curse of the Swamp Creature to No Retreat, No Surrender). Usually, he and I have a great time picking bad films apart, but because Gymkata was so hard to follow, it wasn’t as side-splittingly funny as we’d hoped it would be. Still, if you plan to watch Gymkata, I recommend doing so with a friend; in between the laughter, you’re gonna need someone to explain what the hell’s going on!