Warner Bros. // 1985 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // January 30th, 2007
The skill of gymnastics. The kill of karate.
The fans demanded it. The studios relented. And now Kurt Thomas's epic saga of one man's fight to liberate a fictional Eastern European country from the clutches of a bearded Australian by using flares, straddles, tucks, splits, twists, saltos and Gaylords has arrived.
When the forces of good face the threat of nuclear holocaust, the leaders of the free turn to their only hope: the Cabot family. Though Mr. Cabot is brave and strong, the real star is his son Jonathan (Thomas) a world-class gymnast and a five-time cover model for Spandex and Mullets Quarterly. When Jonathan's father ends up missing during a top secret operation, the U.S. government approaches Jonathan to pick up where his father left off.
Turns out an obscure country called Parmistan holds the key to geopolitical dominance. Its centralized location, somewhere near the Caspian Sea, will offer a world power a prime venue to plant an early missile warning system. There's one catch: the backward yokels who live there force all foreigners to play "The Game," a deadly obstacle course that includes rope climbs and running through cornfields.
To prepare him for his quest, Jonathan endures a nonsensical montage where he learns such practical skills as walking upstairs on his hands and swinging ninja axes while blindfolded. Aided by the lovely Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani), the daughter of the Khan of Parmistan, Jonathan heads to the untamed wilds of a made-up country to square off with the world's best fighters (who all look like volunteer soccer coaches for their town's rec department), the legendary super-athlete Thorg (Bob Schott) and, ultimately, Zamir (Richard Norton), the wannabe master of a coup and Rubali's fiancée.
With everyone against him, Jonathan will have to call upon all of his athletic prowess, his Olympic tenacity, his enthusiastic patriotism, and his uncanny ability to stumble across random pieces of gymnastic equipment strewn across a third world European nation to emerge victorious.
It's been too long, but my all-time favorite bad movie has finally landed on DVD. Gymkata is so awful, so hugely moronic, that when the MGM studio execs green-lit the project, somewhere, trillions of light years away, a planet exploded. Someone thought it would be a good idea to hand Kurt Thomas a headlining movie role, and that person is probably living at the Y today. Thomas, a champion gymnast who got stiffed out of an Olympic appearance because of the 1980 boycott, delivers lines like he emerged from a coma ten seconds ago.
The challenge, of course, was crafting a suitable vehicle that would showcase Thomas's impressive floor routines. Thus, the skill of "gymkata" was born, a hybrid of martial arts and, well, somersaults. This awkward-looking claptrap is shoehorned into the skeletal framework of a 1957 book called The Terrible Game along with a love story where the girl speaks maybe nine consecutive words during the entire film and the fairly recognizable face of second-tier action placeholder Richard Norton. The cherry on top was bringing in Richard Clouse as director, the guy who helmed a load of kung fu films, most notably Enter the Dragon. Of course, Kurt Thomas is to Bruce Lee as a Barbie Power Wheels is to Optimus Prime.
But that doesn't mean we can't have fun, and Gymkata is terrific fun. No, really it is. You and your idiot friends can count on an evening of riotous derision when you take this classic for a spin. From the surreal training montage to the rope climbs and foot races and ninja evasion, it's all good, and crammed with acting, writing and action choreography that's an affront to the Creator.
What Gymkata is legendary for is the apparatus placement. It's a challenge to craft action set pieces around an actor who swings on bars and does back flips, but Clouse and his boys give it the old college try, supplying their star with convenient conveyances on which to dish out some whirling, twirling punishment. At one point, as he's being pursued by an assortment of gangsters through alleys and streets, he happens upon a bar suspended between two walls that someone was kind enough to lather up with chalk. Luckily, the evil pursuing bad guys were equally kind enough to time their mad dash into the swinging feet of our hero.
Example number two is the iconic moment Gymkata is best known for: The Mentally-Retarded Villager Beatdown Extravaganza on a Pommel Horse. Here's the set-up: Jonathan finds himself navigating the treacherous streets of the "Village of the Damned" (where the ballyhooed Parmistan healthcare system dumps all of its crazy people) and the freaks, imbibed with a hostile mob mentality give chase, cornering Jonathan in the village square, which just happens to have a pommel horse dressed up as...well, I don't know what it's supposed to be. Whatever it is, it's perfectly suitable for beating the snot out of the disabled. The result? Silver screen magic.
Look, there really is only one use for this DVD and that's as either a tool to dislodge a stuck radiator cap or an object of your light-hearted scorn. There is no middle ground with Gymkata; you'll either love it because of its inadequacy or loathe it. Me? I love it. It is the zenith (or nadir) or bad moviemaking.
This release was a long time coming, and I know there are many people out there like me with a self-flagellating love for this film, but Warner Brothers couldn't stick the landing. The video transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic) holds up well enough, but the original mono audio track could certainly have benefited from a touch up. Unfortunately, this marginal underwhelming technical treatment is the high point for the DVD -- aside from the theatrical trailer there are no extras. So much wasted potential.
It is here. I am happy. But Warner Brothers short-changed a true cult classic. ("Classic" used in the loosest sense of the word, of course.) Listen to my feature-length commentary (you'll find the link under Accomplices in the righthand column) and enjoy the enhanced Gymkata experience.
Movie: Guilty of being awesome in the first degree. DVD: Guilty of underperforming.
Review content copyright © 2007 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Judge David Johnson