MAY 3, 1985
GYMKATA is another Summer of 1985 release with a Cold War context. On screen, it involves a mission with the ultimate goal of installing an American satellite monitoring station. Behind the scenes, it stars a gymnast who was favored to win gold at the Olympics in Moscow until the U.S. team boycotted.
I reviewed GYMKATA for The Ain’t It Cool News in 2007 when it first came out on DVD, so you can read that for more details. I have some pretty good lines in there, for example
“this movie and Osama bin Laden are both unintended consequences of [the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan]. And I can say objectively that the better of the two is GYMKATA. GYMKATA is better than Osama bin Laden.”
But it’s a pretty damn 1985 movie so I decided to revisit it for this series. It stars Kurt Thomas, five-time NCAA champion and International Gymnastics Hall of Famer who won six medals at the 1979 World Championship before the aforementioned protest of the 1980 Summer Games. He plays Jonathan Cabot, also a gymnast of some kind. We see him on the parallel bars, and then all the sudden some suit from the Special Intelligence Agency is briefing him for a top secret mission to the secluded country of Parmistan. His dad (Eric Lawson, who played a sheriff in TALL TALE, RUMPELSTILTSKIN, WHEN TIME EXPIRES and KING COBRA) was an agent who disappeared there competing in “The Game,” a thing they apparently do frequently where foreigners try to run an obstacle course while locals on horses with helmets over ninja masks shoot arrows at them. If somebody actually survived the country would offer them any favor they want. Help you move, give you notes on your screenplay, anything.
So all Jonathan has to do, they explain, is simply enter this competition in which everyone who enters is horribly murdered, somehow avoid being horribly murdered, and then instead of getting anything out of it, blow his winnings on a request for permission to install a station for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the theoretical nuclear-missile-blocking shield proposed by the Reagan administration. No problem!
I know we all have different feelings about enjoying or making fun of “bad movies.” So I have to be upfront that I don’t consider this a good movie, and I know much of what I enjoy about it was not meant to be laughed at. But I enjoy GYMKATA because it’s somewhere near that sweet spot of a laughably silly idea treated so seriously that it’s kind of charming, overlapping with types of movies I enjoy (martial arts, training for a covert mission, entering a deadly competition).
Admittedly it’s not a great rendition of those things. The backwards culture of Parmistan, with its low rent robes, banners and castles, is not very fun or visually appealing, which makes the never thrilling parts of this type of story, such as the “wined and dined before the competition starts” part, even more dull than usual. Therefore, much of what makes it entertaining is the goofy shit: The King (Buck Kartalian, Julius from PLANET OF THE APES) who looks like Mel Brooks dressed as Mark Twain in a fur hat. The model he shows of the terrain for the competition, which looks like a child’s paper mache diorama for a school project. This part:
The actual “The Game” parts aren’t great either. The obstacles don’t get more complicated than climbing a rope. And Jonathan seems so unqualified sometimes – when the race starts he runs maybe 20 feet and then immediately trips! Who is he, Ben Quadinaros?
But there’s lots of fun mayhem. When the guys on horses start chasing, somebody gets runs over, and because the camera doesn’t emphasize it at all I genuinely suspect it was an accident. I counted two dummy drops and seven funny screams as people were knocked off of cliffs and ledges and stuff. It seems like the sound department didn’t want to use the Wilhelm Scream but wanted something equally absurd each time.
And of course it’s fun to watch a gymnast in a fight scene. There are two particularly absurd moments:
1. When he runs into an alley and there just happens to be a bar he can jump up and spin on, and every attacker happens to run right to where he can kick them
2. When he gets cornered in a town square where there happens to be what can only be described as a stone pommel horse. So he spins around it and kicks all the guys who come after him.
Gymnastics is always a part of martial arts cinema. Thomas never trained in martial arts, but guys like Scott Adkins and Jean-Claude Van Damme trained in gymnastics. And the truth is I’ve always appreciated gratuitous flips and somersaults in fights, so I enjoy these fights being specifically designed around them. There’s also a very weird comedy bit where he jokes around with his asset/girlfriend Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani, THE EMERALD FOREST, BRUCE LEE’S DRAGONS FIGHT BACK, DISORDERLIES) by repeatedly doing flips and alternating which way he lands facing so he can perform both sides of a conversation. Would’ve liked to see Smeagol try that.
Adding kicks to acrobatics makes for better fights than your usual non-martial-artist actor could do, and it’s a funny contrast to his not-particularly-macho presence and regular guy Adidas pants and mullet.
And there’s a pretty legit supporting cast. Conan Lee (NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN, TIGER ON BEAT, FIRST STRIKE) is one of the other competitors, Tadashi Yamashita (AMERICAN NINJA, CAGE II) trains Jonathan in blindfolded sword fighting, Sonny Barnes (BLACK BELT JONES, TRUCK TURNER) is also a trainer. Most importantly, frequent Cynthia Rothrock co-star and FURY ROAD Prime Imperator/fight coordinator Richard Norton is both fight choreographer and lead villain Zamir.
Zamir leads the Parmistan hunts and is trying to take over the kingdom. He has a padawan braid and a dangly earring, expects to marry Princess Rubali, often goes shirtless, and is prone to random dagger spinning and throwing demonstrations. There’s one part where he shows a sense of honor: he has one of the ninjas killed for not following the rules. But witnessing later cheating Jonathan yells, “They broke the rules! Kill ‘em!” but he’s ignored and whines “Damn it!” to himself.
It’s also distinct from other movies of its type (if there is such a thing) because of the weirdness of the Village of the Crazies section. Being accosted by giggling insane people – fine, whatever. But the guy turning around and revealing a second face on the back of his head is one of those unpredictable moments of inexplicability you treasure in a b-movie. And I love when the guy in the religious looking white robe gestures to him, he stupidly walks toward the guy like “Who, me?” and then the guy turns to walk away and we see that there’s no back on the robe and he’s bare-ass naked.
Otherwise the premise and structure – guy recruited and trained for mission to mysterious island to hang out with strange ruler and compete in deadly games with ulterior motives and personal side mission – are pretty much ENTER THE DRAGON, and it’s the same director, Robert Clouse. Though Clouse also directed DARKER THAN AMBER and THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR, his life became defined by ENTER THE DRAGON. It not only led to a career associated with Lee (bastardizing his unfinished footage into GAME OF DEATH, writing a biography of him) but of trying to create more showcases for exciting new (or new to the West) talents: Jim Kelly in BLACK BELT JONES, Jackie Chan in THE BIG BRAWL, Cynthia Rothrock in CHINA O’BRIEN I and II, Bolo Yeung in IRONHEART.
In that context it’s even funnier to see Kurt Thomas, whose dialogue seems intentionally minimized even though he speaks English, get his own action vehicle. ENTER THE DRAGON producer Fred Weintraub saw him in a commercial and wanted him to star in a movie. He’s a very talented athlete, but an odd fit with those other names when it comes to screen presence. For his troubles the poor guy got nominated for a stupid fucking Razzie award for “Worst New Star.” He was up against “The new computerized Godzilla in GODZILLA 1985,” whatever the hell that means, and lost to Brigitte Nielsen for RED SONJA and ROCKY IV, both of which she’s good in. The insult didn’t stop Thomas from taking another gymnast role in a 1988 TV movie called CIRCUS, where he got to work with Tony Jay and pre-CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN Billy Bob Thornton.
He still owns and operates a training gym in Texas and hosts an annual international gymnastics invitational. He does not have a mullet. But he seems to have a sense of humor about the movie and like talking about it. The Bristol Bad Film Club did a good interview with him where he explained the stone pommel horse:
“We tried doing it without pommels and it just killed my wrists! So, we then had to go get some actual pommels to get it done.” I’m glad they did, since it’s one of the movie’s most wonderful bits of absurdity. He also claims the people from the Village of the Crazies, other than the ones he fights, “were actually crazy people from a local insane asylum in Yugoslavia. We provided them with alcohol and a buffet for their time!”
The script was by Charles Robert Carner (BLIND FURY, director of the 1997 TV remake of VANISHING POINT starring Viggo Mortensen and Jason Priestley), adapted from the novel The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore.
Dan Tyler Moore was born in 1908, the son of Theodore Roosevelt’s military aide and sparring partner. In fact the president was his godfather, and even offered to let his mother deliver him at the White House. He had a degree in physics from Yale. He drafted Ohio’s securities act and ran Cleveland’s regional SEC and Civil Defense offices. During World War II he joined the Office of Strategic Services working as the Chief of counter-intelligence in Cairo, where he stopped an assassination attempt on the King of Greece. After the war he worked for a hotel company in Istanbul, founded an import-export business with his friend Eliot Ness and became a public speaker, columnist and author. His novel Illegal Entry was made into a 1949 film noir starring Howard Duff.
But his biography on Wikipedia just says this:
Dan Tyler Moore is an American author best known for writing The Terrible Game, which was the basis for the film Gymkata.
I have not read that 1956 book, but it sounds like the same premise: a young man is trained and sent to a medieval country to take part in a competition called the Game of Ott where he has to perform various feats while people try to kill him. In the book the goal was to install an “Atomic Howitzer” to attack Russian supply shipments, so the SDI thing made sense as a modern equivalent.
The movie’s happy ending is a triumphant title card:
“In 1985 The First Early Warning Earth Station Was Placed In Parmistan For The U.S. Star Wars Defense Program”
“Early Warning Earth Station” actually sounds like the radar system the Canadian and U.S. governments built in the ‘50s to detect any Soviet missile launch, but “Star Wars Defense Program” would seem to be the derisive nickname for Reagan’s program to develop lasers or other methods to intercept oncoming missiles. While such a system would be nice to have, it seems to have been completely impractical (like it could easily be foiled by sending decoys along with the real missiles). A scientist was fired and became a whistleblower because he criticized it as a wasteful program. Support for it collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, and it was officially cancelled during the Clinton administration.
So Jonathan Cabot never should’ve trusted those motherfuckers. Should’ve asked for a stone pommel horse or something. But at least he found his dad, who appears to die in the opening scene, is found alive on the island, is immediately shot with an arrow and treated as dead, but shows up alive again. Those Cabots are survivors, and so is GYMKATA. I’m sure I’ll still get a kick out of it if I watch it in another 13 years.