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Tonight's Feature Presentation

GYMKATA (1985)

Starring: Kurt Thomas, Richard Norton, Tetchie Agbayani, Edward Bell, John Barrett, Conan Lee

Written By: Charles Robert Carner, Dan Tyler Moore (novel) Directed By: Robert Clouse

The Short Version

Gymkata is so ridiculously bad that it’s legendary.

Kurt Thomas as an action hero is about as believable as Twiggy as a sumo champion.

Wow.  Good thing there are always chalked parallel bars and pommel horses when you need ‘em.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that this is ridiculously bad.

A pilgrimage flick for all action fans: you are required to endure the absurdity that is Gymkata!

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Of course it’s bad for you.  But if someone spreads it on a cracker for you, you’ll eat it anyway and enjoy it.  Don’t bother denying the truth.  You secretly love the stuff.

Pairs Well With...


Get a 30 pack and hope it’s enough.  This one demands the cheap pain that is Beast Ice.

“You’ve gotta outsmart ‘em and you’ve gotta outquick ‘em.”

“I know I’ll outsleep ‘em.”

I must have seen Gymkata a dozen times by the time I finished high school.  Before infomercials completely took over late night television, there was a local UHF station that had this flick as a staple of its late night lineup.  I’m still not sure if it’s because the broadcast rights were so cheap or because someone in charge of programming at that station just really hated insomniacs.

Gymkata is one of the most legendary martial arts action films ever made… but not for any reason that its producers wanted it to be.  But that’s the thing with legends: they’re required viewing regardless of the reason, and that means people still get paid.

Before we start in on our ridiculous plot, however, it’s worth pausing for a ridiculous history lesson for those people who may not remember the Cold War.  In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan imagined a space-based missile defense system to not only provide early warning of a theoretical nuclear missile attack by the Soviet Union, but also to shoot those missiles down, possibly with zomg lazerz.  This quickly became called the “Star Wars” program.  Realistically, nobody whose name wasn’t Reagan actually took it seriously (though the Soviets were happy to bluster), but there was a whole lot of money poured into the thing before it finally got called off.  Well, nobody else took it seriously except Gymkata screenwriter Charles Robert Carner, that is, who tossed it in as a ridiculous catalyst for an already ridiculous story.

As that story begins, champion gymnast Jonathan Cabot (champion gymnast Kurt Thomas, whose other major starring role would come as a guest in a Total Gym infomercial) performs a simple bar routine in front of an awed crowd of maybe thirty-odd people in what looks to be a high school gym.  (He’s even got a groupie.)  While he’s doing that, we interrupt with cuts to and from a scene involving people on horseback chasing down a man who ends up getting shot down by an arrow while trying to cross a high river gorge. 

You’ll eventually figure out that this was Cabot’s father, and that he was in a backwater country called Parmistan.  The elder Cabot was being chased because that is supposedly what happens to any foreigner trying to enter Parmistan, a country that has literally elected to not participate in the 20th Century (young radicals who would like to are actually called “20s”).  It’s called “The Game,” and it entails being chased through what amounts to being a wilderness obstacle course by a small horde of armed warriors whose object it is to kill you.  Should the warriors fail, part of the obstacle course also happens to run through a village full of demented, inbred, criminally insane cannibals.  As you might imagine, no foreigner has beat The Game in over 900 years.  Should one succeed, however, then that victor must be granted not only his life, but one request that must be fulfilled.

As it turns out, Parmistan happens to be the perfect place to stick a “Star Wars” missile defense ground station.  For whatever reason, all interested nations have agreed that military invasion is out of fashion in 1985 (try not to spit out your drink at the absurdity of that), so instead, they’re all picking out a single athlete to represent them in The Game, with the idea being that the “one request” a player gets – assuming he lives, of course – will be a military base for the player’s nation in Parmistan.  Apparently, America is in the mood for high stakes practical jokes, because instead of turning to a Navy SEAL or Delta Force commando of some sort, they’ve decided to pin their hopes on pretty boy gymnast Jonathan Cabot.  And if he’s especially good, they’ll even give him the chance to fornicate with the Princess of Parmistan (Filipino actress Tetchie Agbayani) while he trains…

Director Robert Clouse holds what may be the biggest pendulum swing achievement in all of genre filmmaking.  On the one hand, he directed Enter the Dragon, the single most influential martial arts action film of all time, which is still widely regarded as the best in its class.  On the other hand, he also directed Gymkata, one of the single most spit upon martial arts action films of all time, which is still widely regarded as the worst in its class.  And while the label of “worst ever” is debatable (especially considering that one also has the collective works of Lorenzo Lamas to think about), the “Legendary Trash” status of Gymkata simply cannot be denied. 

Your Zen puzzle of the day: Clouse’s directorial style actually doesn’t change between the two films.  How is this possible?

Clouse is, at heart, an action director, and that is the element he always remains focused on.  As long as the actors say their lines properly and don’t trip on camera cables during the “story stuff,” he’s happy to let those parts go.  This means that the plot tends to have to fend for itself.  If the plot’s decent or at least serviceable, it comes out okay.  If the plot just happens to be some of the most absurd silliness ever green-lit as a screenplay, it’s going to suffer.  We’ve already pieced together which of these Gymkata is.  However, as noted, Clouse does pay major attention to his action scenes, and does everything he can to showcase his star fighters.  When that fighter is a powerhouse like Bruce Lee, the result is pure dynamite.  Give him an established champion like Cynthia Rothrock, and again, you get good results.  Give him a dweebish gymnast like Kurt Thomas… and you get a dweebish gymnast.

That is why the same formula produces drastically different results.  Nevertheless, both of Clouse’s pendulum swing films are essential viewing for any real action movie fan.  Yeah, you heard me.  I’m actually recommending that you watch Gymkata.  Indeed, I’d call it compulsory; a pilgrimage, even.  Gymkata is so transcendently absurd that it absolutely demands to be experienced not just by the “bad movie junkies” of the world, but by everyone.  It’s that epic.

Seriously, how did anyone come up with the idea of not just casting Kurt Thomas as an action hero, but building an entire movie around him?  Did someone lose a bet?  I’m sure that he’s a wonderful human being off camera, but let’s face it: on camera, he’s a dork.  He might have the screen presence to pull off being a pitchman for acne medication, but even that’s stretching it.  While it’s true that there have been great action heroes who haven’t necessarily fit the standard mold – soft spoken everyman Charles Bronson, for example – Thomas is so far off the mark that the audience could be forgiven for wondering whether the thugs attacking him are the movie’s actual bad guys or just the bullies who normally show up to beat him down for lunch money every week.  The preppy sweater over the white collar shirt and the mini mullet don’t exactly add to his action hero cred, either; in fact, when he wears this exact getup during the film’s “big rescue scene” that involves getting attacked with battle axes and getting chased down dark alleys by gun-toting thugs, the incongruity of it all gives one the feeling that Mel Brooks will be showing up at any moment to reveal that Gymkata is in truth Spaceballs: The Action Movie.  (No such luck, of course, despite the fact that the guy playing the Khan looks and sounds rather like Sid Caesar.  This movie takes itself very seriously.)  And all of this is before we get around to discussing the “martial arts” of Kurt Thomas.

But prior to that, I’m going to pause for a moment to give some props to the one guy I feel somewhat sorry for in Gymkata: Richard Norton (Rage and Honor), who not only plays our villain, Zamir, but who also has the thankless job of being the martial arts coordinator and the guy tasked with teaching Kurt Thomas how to fight.  To be fair, I’m sure Norton did his best, and one can at least say that Thomas isn’t tripping over his own shoelaces when he goes into combat.  (But then again, one will note that at the end of the day, “Gymkata” as a “martial art” turns out to be way more “gym” than “kata.”)  Nevertheless, there’s only so much one can do in limited time with less than stellar raw material, and to add to it all, Norton – easily the cast’s most credible and talented fighter – is further punished by being allowed only one trick exhibition scene (some flashy sai twirling moves) and one actual martial arts fight… which he’s forced to lose to Kurt Thomas.  (Hey, I told you that Norton’s playing the villain, so this ain’t exactly a spoiler.)  If you appreciate good fighting, the scene is almost painful to watch, and is probably worth an entire beer by itself.  It starts out decently enough, to be sure: Norton puts on a beat down clinic that director Clouse captures beautifully, and there is pretty much nothing Thomas can do about it by try to flip out of the way.  But then the pain comes, and it comes in a style the reminds me of nothing more than the twist in a professional wrestling match when the guy who is obviously the better man has reached the part of the script where he’s been ordered to lie down and lose to the jobber.  Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Norton literally stops fighting.  In theory, Thomas gets the upper hand, but ironically thanks in part to Clouse’s showcase direction of the combat, it is obvious that Norton is simply giving up rather than using any one of a hundred techniques to turn his dweebish opponent over and finish it.  The farce isn’t allowed to go on long – one suspects that Norton as a fight coordinator knew there was only so much credibility that could be pushed – but it’s enough, and given the “pro wrestling fakery” feel of the twist, it seems only fitting that Thomas wins the fight by employing a variant on one of Ric Flair’s signature moves.

Richard Norton, I salute you for your professionalism.

At least in that fight, though, Thomas was clearly touching his opponent.  On multiple other occasions during the course of Gymkata, his kicks very clearly miss opponents by a mile – I mean they are truly not even close – and yet, the bad guys fall down anyway.  Understanding how careful this director usually is with his fight scenes, one can only conclude that it was decided that this was the best anyone was going to get out of our hero, which is more than a little sad.

But those are all just the warm-ups.  Now it’s time to walk up to the balcony (take the stairs using your hands, if you must – just what was the point of that, anyway, other than grasping to find something that Kurt Thomas could actually do that was unusual?) and have a look at our two main event sequences.

The central premise of “Gymkata” as a martial art is that there’s always going to be conveniently placed gymnastics equipment around when you need it.  Our first example of this comes during the aforementioned dark alley chase sequence wherein Kurt Thomas the JC Penney catalog model is being run down by thugs after rescuing the Princess of Parmistan from their evil clutches.  As he turns the corner into a particularly narrow stretch, there happens to be a solitary pipe running between two buildings at a convenient height.  This in and of itself is theoretically plausible – this does happen in some real life neighborhoods, after all, though there are usually several pipes together, and they tend to be either scalding hot or untouchably cold.  However, someone also had the foresight to chalk this pipe up nicely (to the point where you can see the dust clouds when Thomas leaps up to grab the ba- er, pipe), just in case some foreign gymnast decided to use it to do some fancy spins so that when the bad guys turned around the corner, they’d find themselves running face first into said gymnast’s spinning feet.  It’d be even more convincing if said feet didn’t clearly miss their targets, but hey, the bad guys fall down anyway.  Not only that, but Kurt’s bright white collar is still perfect, and there’s not so much as a single thread pulled from his sweater.  No wonder the Princess is swooning.

But even this cannot compare to the awesome cheesiness that is the most famous scene Gymkata has to offer: a scene so legendary that even people who have never seen the movie and don’t even know its name still have heard whispers of it.  It is a scene that would make Gymkata worth the price of admission even without the surrounding trim of legendarily spectacular failure.  I refer, of course, to the cheese that is The Village of the Crazies.

On the one hand, this sequence is the one portion of Gymkata wherein Robert Clouse comes the closest to establishing a genuinely amazing atmosphere.  Indeed, if the total absurdity of Kurt Thomas had not already been established to the point of making everything else around him carry the same taint, the establishing moments of The Village of the Crazies sequence would be flat-out creepy.  The inbred cannibal residents from whom the place gets its name are genuinely unnerving (I particularly liked the Janus mask guy and the insane priest), and the foggy horror of the Old World style town would not at all be out of place in a Vincent Price film.  But then we get to the town square, at the center of which we see a goat tethered to a stone pommel horse.

Yeah, that’s right.  There’s a pommel horse right in the middle of the town square.  It’s so insanely obvious (the tethered goat is clearly meant to make it seem like it’s not out of place, but even the Laurence Olivier of goats couldn’t pull off an acting feat of that magnitude, and the goat will be gone the next time you see the square) that you probably want to set your beer down as soon as you see our hero entering the village just so you don’t make a mess when you facepalm.

Well, there goes the atmosphere.

Needless to say, if there’s a pommel horse, Kurt’s a-gonna use it, and the results are extraordinary.  After a little bit of exploration, he manages to arouse the wrath of every farm-implement wielding nut job in town, and they chase him into the square, where they surround him.  Our hero then leaps onto the pommel horse and uses it as a base to put on a gym show that also happens to involve introducing his feet to the general vicinity of the faces of all of those who try to rush him.  It is sublimely ridiculous to watch, and it goes on for quite a while before he finally tries to make a break for it.  This is, without question, the single most absurd “martial arts” brawl sequence that I have ever seen.  Words cannot even begin to describe the epic goofiness of it all; you truly have to experience it for yourself to understand.  Once you do, though, you will definitely see why this is one of the most talked-about martial arts action scenes in movie history.  Even Salvador Dali couldn’t come up with something this surreal.

Given scenes like this and the preposterous idea of building an action flick around Kurt Thomas to begin with, one almost wonders if Gymkata wasn’t the result of a scenario like The Producers wherein someone was flat-out trying to make a turkey.  Granted, I know that this wasn’t the case, but damn, it sure feels like it sometimes.  What was supposed to have happened if Gymkata made it big?  Would there have been a follow-up with Mary Lou Retton?  Though come to think of it, I could actually buy Mary Lou Retton as an action heroine much more easily than I could buy Kurt Thomas…

Not that it matters anyway.  Gymkata may stink, but it stinks in epic fashion, and at the end of the day, the pommel horse compels you to make your pilgrimage.

Bottom line, if you’re any kind of action fan, you need to experience Gymkata for yourself at least once, for truly, you really haven’t seen it all until you’ve seen this.  This is the Mad Dog 20/20 you drink to understand the true quality of the decent wine from a different cellar.  This is the back end of the term “Legend.”  This is the very definition of “Epic Fail.”

Gymkata is sublime absurdity… and it is awesome.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

More From The Bar! | China O'Brien | Marked for Death | Mortal Kombat |

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