It is going to be hard for me to explain to my children what life was like before cellphones, before home video/DVD/DVR's, before powerful home computers and the internet, before a hundreds of channels on televison. I also think it will be equally, if not more, difficult to explain 1980's cinema and movies like Gymkata (1985).
I will sit my children down and say, "You see, the 80's was a time when a major studio like Warner Bros., producer Fred Weintraub, and director Robert Clouse teamed up behind the idea that they could turn a gymnastics star into an action hero. In an age of musclebound, one-liner cracking action leads like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, they created a whole film around willowy 70's gymnastic star Kurt Thomas."
"Was he any good?" my doe-eyed child will ask.
"No. He was not. Little gymnastic guys, who cannot act, trying to turn tumbling into martial arts moves was not a formula for success."
"Daddy, that does sound like a horrible idea. How come they made that movie?"
"Those were different times. The times of Yor: The Hunter from the Future and Megaforce."
"Well, that Gymkata movie must be stinky."
"Not exactly. It is stinky... stinky-wonderful."
"I don't understand."
"Few do, my child. Few people do."
Gymkata is one of those purely 80's movies. I doubt another decade could have produced such a loopy conceptualized action film. Also, in terms of visibility, there wasn't any serious home video renter in the 80's who didn't take notice of it on the rental isle. If you were a kid like me, who pretty much rented anything with a ninja on the cover, a blond guy kicking some ninjas over the tagline: "A NEW KIND OF MARTIAL ARTS COMBAT! THE SKILL OF GYMNASTICS. THE KILL OF KARATE." was a title that you had to pick up.
Gymnastics ace Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas) gets the bad news that his secret agent father has gone M.I.A. while on assignment in the obscure nation of Parmistan. Cabot takes over his fathers assignment to enter and win the isolationist nations deadly game. It is the only time outsiders are allowed in and the winner is granted one request. The US wants to beat the rival competition in order to place a base inside Parmistan to monitor satellites for the Star Wars program. How much more 80's can you get?
But first, Cabot must train to combine his gymnastics skills with martial arts. Montage time! His two trainers are a big black guy and the poor man's Sho Kosugi, Tadashi Yamashita (American Ninja, Bronson Lee, Champion), who has a eagle on his arm in one scene for no other reason than having a eagle clearly makes you awesome. They also have inside help from the Parmistan princess, but she doesn't do much other than glower at Cabot and pull knives on him. Naturally, for no good reason (they are never even shown really talking to one another prior to the big, first kiss) she falls for him. He is the hero after all.
The villain of the piece (and action coordinator) is Commander Zamir (Richard Norton- Millionaires Express, Rage and Honor, City Hunter), the kings right hand man who, after rigging the game and marrying the princess, is plotting to overthrow the king. After some "Yankee go home!" moments and double crosses while getting to Parmistan, Cabot finally gets in and gears up for the games. Filmed in Yugoslavia, the view of Europeans is a hilarious cliche, a parade of fez or fur hat wearing, hairy, black-toothed, eye missing, weathered skin, backwoods grotesques. Again, very 80's Cold War superior.
The game, which takes up the last third of the film, is pretty simple. Its basically like a cross country fun run with European ninjas throwing spears and slinging arrows at you if you are in the back of the pack. Run through a corn field, climb a rope cliff, cross a rope gorge, go over a bridge, run across some bleak forest land... doesn't sound like much... but then you have to go through a town of insane cannibals. Thats right. Parmistan's idea of dealing with the mentally ill is to give them their own town to wander around and be crazy in. Brilliant.
The fellow participants are a relatively anonymous track suit wearing bunch. Tiger on the Beat's Conan Lee is there for a second but doesn't do much other than die. The big bad bruiser in the game is Thorg, played by Force: Five, Head of the Family, and former 70's arm wrestling champ Bob Schott, who's current career is that of a paranormal investigator. Bigfoot better watch out. The guy that played Thorg is coming for you.
Gymkata is chock full of everything that makes a great b-movie. A core silly premise and star. A budget locale. Logic defying storytelling. Take, for instance, a scene where Cabot is given some secret agent weapons that he never uses and we never hear mention of again. Corner cutting direction, like a big gorge jump where, naturally, we never see the gorge. And, the actual gymkata is just so damn stupid, Thomas tumble-jumping into his opponents, flipping for no good reason, and they wedge in high bars and pummel horses in the middle of near medieval Europe just so Thomas can swing around.
Robert Clouse's career highmark was Enter the Dragon, and history has shown that Bruce Lee's collaboration behind the scenes as well as starring was the real element to the films success. But, Clouse's Black Belt Jones, China O'Brien, Force: Five, and Battle Creek Brawl also left their marks on martial filmdom, though to a considerably lesser degree. He also tried his hand at some animal attack films like The Pack and The Rats but clearly he knew martial films were really his bread and butter. Though Gymkata is undoubtably a low point for Clouse, I think the action sequence in the village of the crazies may be his finest hour, even better than the Lady from Shanghai aping mirror sequence finale in Enter the Dragon. The village of the crazies sequence is so surreal and off-kilter, visually, aurally, and so elaborate in its silly-strangeness, I highly doubt viewers could ever forget it.
The knock on Gymkata is that it is a bad movie. Now, I think anyone who picks up Gymkata and walks away from it saying, "That was horrible," is evidence of the worst kind of cinema audience stupidity. My question to those people is: What did you expect? Did you really think it would be, in relative terms, a good movie? Gymkata is not a bad movie. It is a great-bad movie. In terms of everything one desires from a guilty pleasure film, which it clearly is, Gymkata delivers on every level. A bad movie, to me, is a film that fails and irks and/or bores me. This is a movie that doesn't irk me because it delivers what any sensible person should assume just by looking at its cover and reading its synopsis. On the other end, for me, Gymkata is entertaining every second because it is such a misguided and wonderfully weird treasure of action cinema.
Let me put it this way, if Gymkata starred whoever, if it was just Somethingelse'kata, odds are it would be a blip of a film, a minor action'er with Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, Don "The Dragon" Wilson, etc. But, because it is Gym'kata and it stars Kurt Thomas, it actually veers into something, at the very least, memorable and unique. I think it is a very valid argument that because Thomas was such an unwise choice for an action hero to base a film around, it actually breaks the film through to the other side of being special. The very element that makes it a failure, paradoxically, makes it successful.
The DVD: Warner.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. After watching the film for twenty+ years on video, it was quite a shock and took some adjustment on my part to get used to the cleaner "matted" widescreen image. Being an 80's video junkie, I actually wouldn't have minded a washed out, open frame, home video version option, but maybe that's just me.
Being the kind of film MGM isn't going to put a whole lot into restoring, the print is purely the basics. It has some age wear and tear, some softness, occasional spotiness and heavy grain, and a handful of scenes where the contrast comes off a bit grayed. Still, in general terms, it is relatively crisp and exhibits good details for a low budget 80's film. Technically the disc has some aliasing issues.
A minor quibble, they appear to have used a video source for the end credits (following the credits there is even the old home video protection piracy text roll), and the image is too dark, obscuring the "best of Gymkata moments" that play out.
Sound: English or French Mono. Optional English subtitles. The sound is pretty bad. All the problems are source related. Its just a pretty bad mix, stock fx, including some laughable dying screams and out of synch action thwacks. A lot of the post-dubbing of the dialogue is muffled and garbled.
Extras: Trailer. Not much, but what a trailer. You get to hear the movie-voice over guy actually crack the line, "When gymnastics and karate are fused, the combustion becomes an EXPLOSION and a new kind of martial arts is born!"
Conclusion: What can I say? I love it. Any fan of b-films from the 80's probably has a soft spot for the film. Its really one of the more peculiar action blunders of the decade, a time when the budget ceiling for action films was low enough that major studios actually invested cash in these kind of films. The DVD is a barebones, basic, limited presentation of the film, which is exactly what you would expect. A rental for the uninitiated, but a buy for the Gymakata cult.