March 21st, 2014: Gymkata (1985)


Cast and Crew: Robert Clouse (Director), Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton, Tadashi Yamashita.

What it’s About: An amiable king of a small Central Asian nation boasts a beautiful daughter who looks nothing like him and a yearly Spartan Run in which laggards are arrowed by ninjas. Bound by honor to grant the wish of anyone who successfully completes the course, the king receives a bevy of strapping Cold War lads bent on winning at all costs due to a plot device involving nukes and satellites. Our hero, played by Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas in his only film role, seeks victory, romance, and a pommel horse.

Why Watch it Today: Before Hunger Games, there was Gymkata.

My editor and blog overlord Professor Mortis has informed me that on this day in 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter called American athletes to boycott Soviet-hosted Olympics over its actions in Afghanistan. I suppose some things never change. While Afghanistan is not on the Caspian sea like Gymkata’s fictive setting of Parmistan, presumably the glut in Olympic action created a ready supply of athletic-looking folks to cast this woefully confused martial arts extravaganza.

In 1985 ninjas ruled supreme. Perhaps it was the invasion of Japanese capitalism and electronics. Perhaps Cowboys and Indians had run out of steam. Perhaps Chuck Norris liked his boot-eaters anonymous. One thing is for certain: they make affording a cast of bad guys much easier by allowing stuntmen to be reduced, reused, and recycled. Gymkata takes the hooded warrior to heart, importing ninjameister Tadashi Yamashita (The Octogon (1980)) to prepare our hero for his deadly game and teach him how to flip out and kill people. Ninja adversaries are never exhausted in Parmistan, and the rage for ninja accessories seems to have infected the king’s servants up to the highest ranks, where his second-in-command, Zamir (Richard Norton, City Hunter (1993), Mr. Nice Guy (1997)), twirls sai and kickboxes like a pro.

Gymkata’s blend of chalk dust from the West and karate chop from the East is great in theory but hilariously bad in practice. Kurt Thomas backflips and tumbles through the choreography with a clockwork precision that ends up making every action sequence seem as improbable and stiff as a child flicking action figures. Yet only a few years later, Jackie Chan would bring his blend acrobatics and martial arts to American audiences in a way that appeared fresh, believable, and unprecedented.

Gymkata is deserving of its reputation as “so bad it’s good”. A movie a bit ahead of its time but also completely dated by it, it’s a guilty pleasure to watch how it can all go so spectacularly wrong.

3 comments on “March 21st, 2014: Gymkata (1985)

  1. geelw says:

    Gyaaaah. I’m old enough to recall NOT paying to see this when it was initially released, instead spending my money on something like a bunch of arcade games. The TV ad was hilarious and the trailer was triply so. Still, by the time I did see it on cable, my response was something like “well, at least it’s better than Megaforce!”

    Not by much, though…

  2. T.A. Gerolami says:

    Well, part of the significance of Carter’s ban is it cost Kurt Thomas his chance at Olympic Gold-something he never managed to do, though he did compete in the 1976 games. Thankfully he did appear in this enjoyably cheesy wrong headed action film. I find Robert Clouse’s bizarre, unsuccessful quest to recapture the Enter the Dragon fascinating, particularly when he went for things like “maybe I can turn this gymnast into a big martial arts star!”

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