Sunday, January 7, 2018

DVR Diary: GYMKATA (1985)

In a better world Kurt Thomas would be known as an American Olympic hero. He broke through generations of Eastern European and Japanese dominance to win the Men's All-Around title in the 1979 world gymnastics championship and was a favorite to take gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics until the U.S. pulled its team out of the games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thomas did not stick around to be part of the 1984 Olympic team, which won a team gold in a games tainted by a tit-for-tat Warsaw Pact boycott. In this context, Gymkata looks like a desperate bid for the fame Thomas may have felt he deserved from athletics, but my suspicion is that Robert Clouse's film, or something like it, probably would have happened even had Thomas gone to Moscow and won the gold. Exactly because he would have been an American hero, someone in Hollywood would want to exploit his fame. The same thinking immortalized Bruce Jenner's masculinity on film in the unlikely musical vehicle Can't Stop the Music. Gymkata at least gave Thomas an opportunity to put his face on screen. By comparison, some of his comrades who persevered and won gold in 1984 also made movies, but they were usually stuntmen wearing Ninja Turtle costumes. Thomas, the star of that generation of gymnasts, would be showcased as a leading man and exposed as an actor of inflexible woodenness, and his film would live in infamy.

Someone had the idea, less obvious in hindsight, that someone with Thomas's acrobatic prowess would make an excellent martial-arts hero. That insight delivered him into the hands of Clouse, who could always be identified, at a minimum, as the director of Enter the Dragon to give subsequent films the illusion of expertise. More recently, Clouse had bungled Jackie Chan's American starring debut, The Big Brawl, apparently because he had come to believe his own hype and thought he could direct fight scenes better than Chan. While Chan might have disputed the claim, Thomas would bring no such pretense to Gymkata. The remarkable thing about Clouse is that after Gymkata he was called on again to put over a martial-arts prospect, directing Cynthia Rothrock in two China O'Brien movies in the late Eighties.

Gymkata portrays the invention of a new martial art as part of an American intelligence project. The government believes that Jonathan Cabot's gymastics prowess will give him an advantage in securing the use of the nation of Parmistan for the U.S. "Star Wars" missile-defense program. For the traditionalist Parmistanis and their monarch (Buck Kartalian) to even consider granting rights to the Americans, our representative must prevail in an ancient competition known to us simply as "The Game." Foreigners in Parmistan are entertained by being compelled to run a nationwide gauntlet, with all citizens eligible, within the rules, to kill them. Cabot's father has already tried the Game and has gone missing for his trouble. Jonathan thus has the filial duty to find his father, or avenge him, to enhance his patriotic motivation to take part in the Game.

"Gymkata" -- never named as such in the story, if I recall right, is invented on the fly as a variety of martial artists help Jonathan adapt his gymnastic disciplines into combat techniques. His training ranges from getting beat up a lot to walking up flights of stairs on his hands -- Clouse visually emphasizes Thomas's hand strength but there's no real payoff to this in the form of extra striking power, as would seem obvious to any Chinese director -- while his cultural advisor, a half-Parmistani, half-Indonesian princess (Techie Agbayani) engages him in knife fights to remind him not to trust anyone. The Princess's own position is insecure, as the King's top advisor and game master (Richard Norton) covets not only her hand but her father's throne. Jonathan will find himself not only running and fighting for his life, and not only hunting for his father, but rescuing Parmistan from a coup d'etat that will throw its strategic location and resources to "the other side" of the Cold War.

Whatever its other consequences, the U.S. alliance with the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviets revived the idea of heroic barbarians in the modern world, or just plain barbarians, in the pop/pulp imagination. Gymkata's Parmistan is a preposterous place ruled over by a community theater's idea of a comic-opera sultan, where the sort of savage customs a penny-a-word might imagine to make rent money -- the film is, in fact, based on a 1957 novel -- still prevail. For all that Gymkata looks like a throwback to Saturday matinee serials, it makes sure to include masked warriors who could be taken for ninjas by undiscriminating up-to-date audiences. At select moments, when props permit, Thomas uses all his gymkata skills to fight off a nation of hunters. In an early scene, a bar built between buildings in an alley enables our hero to take out enemies with a succession of giant swings, his antagonists dutifully walking into range to take their medicine before Cabot accidentally wallops a civilian in his berserker rage. In the film's most infamous scene, Cabot discovers a pommel horse -- I presume it's meant to be a hitching post -- in the middle of Parmistan's notorious "village of the damned," where all the nation's homicidal maniacs are confined. That discovery enables Thomas to do his signature gymnastics move, the Thomas Flair, to fend off the crazies with flying feet in all directions while they, being crazy, never think to throw something at him to stop his legs. The entire village sequence is a lugubrious side trip into attempted horror or the trippy absurdity of Circle of Iron. It kills what momentum the film had dead, though some bad-movie connoisseurs may find this part its most entertaining. At least no one talks in that part, so one is spared Thomas's acting. Typical of his line reading is this dramatic response to the news that the villain has kidnapped the princess: "Not for long, 'cause .........I'll kill him." The truly awful thing about Gymkata is that Thomas isn't even its worst actor. That honor probably goes to Buck Kartalian, whose vaudevillian capers as the Khan kill anyone's attempted immersion in the film's fantasy world, though Eric Lawson in his brief appearance as Thomas's father is, if anything, even more wooden, being an older tree, than his onscreen offspring. For all that Clouse and his writers want Gymkata to be some weird experience, it has none of the artistic insanity that redeems many another bad movie with indulgent audiences. It is all empty exploitation, a stinker by committee, soullessly stupid, something to be laughed at, not with, with no skewed view of society of humanity for audiences to even try sharing. Yet people still find plenty to laugh at in it, it seems, so Gymkata and Kurt Thomas will live on in movie memory.

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