Bad Movies We Love: Hapless, Incoherent Gymkata Earns Gold for Unintentional Laughs
With the world in the thrall of another Olympiad, it’s time to dig up an appropriately athletic title from the vaults. And given the disastrous performance of U.S men’s gymnastics team in London, I will be doing my part to salve that psychic wound by drawing attention to an even bigger acrobatic disaster: the 1985 film Gymkata.
The late, legendary Wide World of Sports anchor Jim McKay was renowned for bringing us what he called “the human drama of athletic competition," and in that arena, the Olympics rarely disappoint. Gymkata, on the other hand, fails spectacularly. The drama is non-existent. The athletic display is jackhammered into the storyline, and the performances can be said to be many things, but human is not one of them. This is a gold-plated disaster, and it is one worthy of display.
What exactly is Gymkata? The movie's tag line describes it as "The skill of gymnastics. The kill of karate." In reality, it was MGM's unintentionally hilarious attempt to cash in on the excitement behind the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Men's gymnastics team of 1984 by building a clunky action/adventure movie around a buff gymnast and a fictional form of martial arts.
To those ends, the studio cast a once-promising athlete Kurt Thomas, to star in the picture. Thomas had been expected to win gold at the 1980 games in Moscow, but the United States' boycott of those games scuttled those chances. I'd love to know what Thomas considers more disappointing: being denied his Olympic dream or his appearance in this movie.
Handsome athlete in hand, MGM grafted on the action/adventure angle by optioning a pulpy 1957 novel, The Terrible Game, by Dan Tyler Moore, hiring an unproven TV writer Charles Robert Carner to script it and a chop-sockey film director, Robert Clouse, to helm it.
All that was left was to slap an action mullet on Thomas and yell, "Action!"
The movie begins with slow-mo footage of Jonathon Cabot (Thomas) performing on the horizontal bar, intercut with shots of stampeding horsemen pursuing a lone individual. This man is chased to a ravine and as he tries to cross by suspended rope he is shot with an arrow and plunges to his death. We learn that this was Cabot's father, and soon Jonathon is being recruited by the U.S. government to join a new fighting corps because he's needed to infiltrate the country of Parmistan — an Eastern-bloc nation, possibly known for its hard cheese — where the government wants to establish our satellite defense shield.
Jonathon is told that once he infiltrates Parmistan, he needs to compete in a centuries-old contest called “The Game”, where the winner is rewarded with his life, and one request. His training is overseen by Princess Rubali, who is said to be an expert at The Game. This designation is dubious at best given that nobody has won The Game in 900 years. Cabot's training is even more unconvincing, although highly entertaining. Walking up staircases on his hands turns out to be a key form of training, if only so that the camera can linger on Thomas' crotch as he repeatedly practices this skill.
Predictably, Cabot and the mostly mute Princess hook up and once he's fully trained, then head to Parmistan, where faster than you can say "freshly grated," they encounter trouble. The Princess is kidnapped, and Cabot engages in the first of numerous skirmishes using his newfound Gymkata skills. Thomas is also given plenty of opportunities to elude danger using a combination of vaulting, floor exercises and other gymnastic skills.
And yes, things get even more ri-damned-diculous: In one scene, Cabot uses a crude pommel horse that he just happens to come across to dispatch a crowd of attackers as they come at hi in take-a-number fashion.
Once, the Game portion of this train wreck gets underway, Gymkata becomes even more incoherent and contradictory. Despite repeated claims that there are strict rules to the Game, they are repeatedly ignored. And, at one point, Thomas undercuts his stoic leading-man aura by whining about how other contestants are cheating.
Late in picture, Cabot learns that his father did not die from the arrow that found him at the beginning of the movie — only to see his pops take another shaft. "Just win," father tells son before he drops for a second time.
A climactic battle follows where Jonathon eventually snaps his opponent's neck with his thighs of steel. The victorious Cabot rides into town with his still-breathing father, who apparently is harder to kill than the dismembered Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jonny wins the Game, gets the girl and is reunited with his now sieve-like father, but the filmmakers can't leave well enough alone. A title card then states the Ronald Reaganesque reason that the ending is truly happy: "In 1985 The First Early Warning Earth Station Was Placed in Parmistan For The U.S. Star Wars Defense Program."
If watching athletes who are more fit, skilled and graceful than you'll ever be leaves you with a feeling of inferiority, then Gymkata is your remedy. If the flailings of a onetime Olympic hopeful trapped in a hapless, incompetent production don't make you feel superior, they will at least make you laugh like a champion.