Saturday, June 11, 2005

Review: Gymkata (1985)


A serious international crisis is brewing in the tiny mountain nation of Parmistan. For reasons too technical to explain, Parmistan is the perfect location to build a control center for a Star-Wars-like satellite defense system (that's the Ronald Reagan Star Wars, not the Jar-Jar Binks Star Wars). The U.S. and the Soviets are in a race to establish a base there, but Parmistan's isolationistic ruler the Khan isn't about to open up his country to outsiders.

In fact, Parmistan is so xenophobic that anyone who enters the country is forced to participate in "the GAME." It's a spectator sport in which competitors run through a glorified obstacle course with the added challenge of murderous ninjas and insane people chasing after them. The grand prize for anyone who survives the Game is to be granted both his life and one request, and therein lies the best hope for the U.S. to get its military base in Parmistan. If the government sends a man to play the Game and win, he can make the base his request. The man for the job, or so the filmmakers would have us believe, is Gymnastics champion and secret government agent Jonathan Cabot (played by actual Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Kurt Thomas).

Jonathan receives some intensive training before his mission begins, including lessons on how to walk up stairs on his hands and how to take a beating from a large black dude. His training is supervised by a member of Parmistan's Royal family, the beautiful Princess Rubali, who is concerned about a rival faction in her country which is threatening to seize power from her father. The rival faction is led by Zamir, the Khan's musclebound right-hand man. We also learn that Jonathan's own father competed in the Game and was never seen again.

With Rubali's help Jonathan makes it into Parmistan and enters the Game, wherein he survives rope-climbs, flying arrows, and even the Village of the Damned (a walled city where Parmistan sends all its criminally insane - more on that later.) He gets unexpected help from - GASP! - his long-lost father who survived the Game after all. He has a final showdown with Zamir and Gymkatas him into oblivion, then rides triumphantly back into town. The U.S. gets its satellite defense system. The free world is saved, once again, thanks to gymnastics.


A reliable way to come up with an idea for a movie is to take two already popular ideas and splice them together. In Gymkata we've got gymnastics spliced together with martial arts and thrown into the background of a Cold War thriller that would give Tom Clancy an erection. Or maybe not, but I think that's pretty much how the producers imagined it. Really, though - what's not to love here? There's international intrigue, fancy-pants pommel horse routines, ninjas, the Village of the Damned - it's everything anyone could want in a movie and more.

Well, maybe there are a few problems... Kurt Thomas, bless his heart, is not what you'd call a first-rate actor. To be honest, I've seen mold colonies with more personality. On the other hand, he is the best actor in the film, and boy can he do flips! Backflips, frontflips, sideflips - the Gymkata fighting technique seems to be based almost entirely on flips. That and finding conveniently-placed gymnastic equipment wherever you go. It's surprising how often you can find naturally occurring, pre-chalked parallel bars once you start to look for them.

I'm a little confused about the whole Parmistan thing. It's described as being in the Hindukush mountains (which my research assistant tells me are mostly in Pakistan). Based on that bit of geography the people in Parmistan look much more... Yugoslavian... than you might expect. The Khan (played by Buck Kartalian) bears a rather strong resemblance to Mel Brooks. The Parmistani supposedly hate outsiders and yet it's stated that their own Princess' mother was Indonesian. Zamir is a blonde guy with an Australian accent. And there don't seem to be any mountains anywhere. This is a country that needs to get its story straight.

A lot of people get shot with arrows in Gymkata. Considering the quality of the film as a whole, the arrow effects are surprisingly convincing. Usually in movies of this caliber you see the shooter shoot the arrow, then the camera quickly swings over to the shootee, arrow already firmly in place. Here, though, arrows frequently fly into the frame and stick into the shootee with such alarming veracity it leads one to wonder if some of these actors are buried in a shallow grave somewhere in Eastern Europe. There are some great lines delivered by arrow victims just prior to their being shot. (Security guard protecting Jonathan in Karabal: "Well, there's just a little anti-American sentiment running around, but I think [shhhh-thunk] Aaargh!!!" Jonathan's father after their reunion: "It's great to see you. You'll never know how [shhhh-thunk] Aaargh!!!") Excellent.

Aside from arrows, the one thing in this film that's done well is the Village of the Damned. I don't know where they found the people who played the village residents, but I must admit those people were damn scary. There's a guy who lops off his own arm with a scythe, a guy who wanders around in a backless monk's robe (yes, his pasty slavic butt was hanging out), and ask anyone who's seen Gymkata about the guy with two faces - I'm pretty sure they'll remember him. There were many more horrors in the Village of the Damned that I don't care to describe or even remember but if the producers had made the whole movie there they might have had a horror classic on their hands. As Jonathan's dad so eloquently put it, "it's a nightmare in Hell."

As if the Village of the Damned weren't torturous enough, it also features the longest slow-motion sequence I've ever seen. I clocked it at just over three and a half minutes. My theory is that the cinematographer only meant to shoot part of the sequence in slow-mo but then forgot to reset the frame rate on the camera. It's the sort of film that makes such a theory seem plausible.

Final Analysis

The true essence of Gymkata is something that's hard to put into words. It's really a film that has to be experienced to be understood. I could tell you about the scene where Jonathan finds a stone pommel horse in the middle of the Village of the Damned and uses it to kick the crap out of about fifty rabid lunatics, but until you see it for yourself you just can't fully appreciate it. If Mary Lou Retton had made a sequel, the Gymkata movement might have conquered the world. Highly recommended.


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