I know some may cry foul, but I was ecstatic when the votes for Greatest Hits Remix Vol. 2 resulted in a veritable landslide victory for Gymkata. It had been many moons since I’d seen the film when we screened it at our Schlock-o-Thon in April, and it more than lived up to my memories. The film is certainly one of the most ridiculous martial arts films to ever grace the silver screen, but it is unfailingly entertaining. Additionally, it serves as a perfect time capsule for 80’s action cinema, managing to pack in a staggering number of trademarks in its lean 90-minute running time. Is it blind nostalgia that has me wrapped in Gymkata’s spell, or is it the perfect fusion of gymnastics and the art of karate? Let’s look a bit closer shall we . . .
At its heart, Gymkata adheres to a typical martial arts/action film framework. A young hero must undergo strenuous training to defeat a well-trained enemy force threatening community/world peace and a love interest. However, the material is made memorable largely due to what should be its greatest weakness - rather than developing a story and casting the players, the producers started with gymnast Kurt Thomas and developed a film around him. This may seem ridiculous, but it certainly wasn’t the first instance of such a maneuver (see Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, etc.). However, unlike some of his contemporaries, Thomas projected little charisma or intelligence onscreen. That’s not to say he doesn’t possess these qualities, but that his limited acting ability didn’t serve to convey them. Incredibly, Thomas’s inept performance actually enhances the film, endowing it with an unintentional humor that is relentlessly entertaining. In trying to convince us that we’re watching the latest major action star to arrive on the scene, the producers overstate the case and send the film careening into the realm of the absurd.
Of course, in discussing Thomas one cannot ignore the obvious talking point which is the inclusion of gymnastics in the celluloid mix. Without question, the filmmakers were hoping this vital component would help Gymkata distinguish itself from the pack. Again, this may seem outrageous in 2007, but in 1985 the marketplace was overflowing with martial arts films, particularly those involving ninjas (and there are certainly ninjas to be found in Gymkata). Consequently, it wasn’t imprudent to look for novel elements to provide the film with a unique spin. However, while it might have appeared a move of genius during the pre-production phase, onscreen the gymnastic maneuvers come off as completely ridiculous. Often Thomas could far more effectively dispatch his enemies with a punch or kick, but instead goes through an elaborate routine that would most likely give the villains time to take him out. Furthermore, working the gymnastic routines into the proceedings is visibly labored, and manages to thwart any goodwill attempts at the suspension of disbelief (e.g. Thomas by chance coming upon a pommel horse in the middle of an isolated village). Luckily, as with the leading man’s painful performance, the unlikely gymnastics only bolster the entertainment value.
From the above one might conclude that there isn’t much going on here besides disastrous spectacle . . . and that is largely the case. Even so, there is an underlying historical value to the film that is not at once obvious. Returning to our leading man, it is interesting to note a bit about his background. Thomas was slated to compete in the 1980 Olympics, but President Carter decided the U.S. would boycott due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As such, Thomas missed out on the possibility of winning Olympic gold (and was awarded with the consolation prize of Gymkata). With that in mind, the plot of Gymkata would undoubtedly have a somewhat personal interest to Thomas. In a nutshell Thomas’s John Cabot is recruited to secure the right to establish a Star Wars defense site in a fictional Eastern European country (remember this was the height of the Reagan era), thereby giving the Soviets something to think about. With this in mind, Thomas is in a way acting out a big screen retribution against those who prevented him from realizing his Olympic potential. It certainly must have been odd starring in a vehicle that had connections to his personal life, and this adds an interesting layer when viewing the film. Although it’s largely set in a fictional, not to mention fantastical country, Gymkata is a rich snapshot of a moment in the 80’s political scene.
Another point I would be remiss not to mention, is the fact that Gymkata was directed by the great Robert Clouse. While Gymkata may not represent the high point of his career, Clouse was responsible of a string of wonderful B-grade action films and one bona fide classic. A few of these include: Black Belt Jones, The Ultimate Warrior, The Pack, Game of Death, The Big Brawl, etc. And the classic . . . none other than Enter the Dragon! With a pedigree like that, you know Gymkata can’t be all bad : ) In fact, it’s one of the best bad movies we’ve shown at Fantasmo, and certainly worthy of an encore! If you missed it the first time, you definitely want to be there on November 2 . . . and if you saw it the first time, we know you’ll be there on November 2! Well played Superfans!
Also, don’t forget that Cabaret Delirium is presenting Carnival of Souls tonight at the Bayside Inn! A creepy classic that is a must see. Check out the post below or contact George Booker (firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional details.