Ah, "Gymkata." For how many years had I heard about this film before actually watching it for myself? Obviously too many, since the movie didn't match my growing expectations. As a guy who doesn't let the opinions of (many) people sway his decisions of what to watch, I disregarded the critiques and LOLs of folks who've bashed this movie, believing that even if the film was incredibly goofy, it might sate me with some nice action scenes like No Retreat, No Surrender
did. Sadly, this was not the case: "Gymkata" is merely plain goofy, as opposed to incredibly goofy, and its action content - despite being unusual - doesn't really hit the spot. Succinctly, it's not nearly as entertaining as I had hoped for.
The story: champion gymnast Jonathan Cabot (real-life gymnastics champ Kurt Thomas) is selected by the US government to act as their entry to a deadly contest organized by the tiny, violent monarchy-nation of Parmistan to decide which country will have rights to its strategic missile defense site.
The movie actually draws on the actual, controversial "Star Wars" missile defense system from the 1980s as a major plot point, so one's personal politics and opinion of history might weigh in to your impression of the movie. Me, I'm just disappointed that the producers went with such a contrived plot to begin with: though the screenplay is loosely adapted from Dan Tyler Moore's novel
about an isolated nation subjecting outsiders to grisly contests, the film's theatrical trailer focuses almost entirely on its namesake - the gymnastics-karate hybrid martial art gymkata (not actually mentioned by name in the movie). This concept is interesting enough, if you ask me, and director Robert Clouse's best-known picture - Enter the Dragon
- proves that he works best with simple storylines. The movie rushes through both character and story development to get to its forced premise of a pseudo-medieval country that its coherency suffers: there's just too much story here for a 90-minute feature, and a lot of its subsequent weirdness is the result of minimal or nonexistent exposition.
I'm not sure what to make of Kurt Thomas. On one hand, he's not a great actor and clearly no martial artist, but I'm nevertheless disappointed by the critical bashing the film received: along with his nomination for a Razzie Award, this probably deterred him from pursuing many more movie roles, despite what I perceive as promising potential. His athleticism is unquestionable, and even though some of the physical setups we see here are crude and heavy-handed, the gratuitous flipping and acrobatic moves foreshadow the style of action that future Hong Kong and Thai pictures would bring to cinema. More disappointingly, the presence of legitimate martial arts movie stars is, for the most part, wasted: Tadashi Yamashita (American Ninja
) and John Barrett (American Kickboxer
) don't fight at all, and Hong Kong veterans Conan Lee (Tiger on Beat
) and Richard Norton (City Hunter
) only get one so-so fight apiece. The obstacles encountered in the game don't really offer themselves to great action...although I have to admit that the "Village of the Crazies" scene is effectively creepy and exciting. Video game fans, don't you think that Resident Evil 4
got a few ideas from this sequence?
The movie's sense of morality - encapsulated by the treachery of Richard Norton's character against the ruler of the kingdom (Buck Kartalian, Planet of the Apes
) - is severely flawed, but it adds to the movie's sizeable B-movie charm. I really don't know whether Robert Clouse purposely sought out increasingly goofy projects like this after his work with Bruce Lee or just got (un)lucky, but when it comes to weirdness, this is definitely one of his weirdest. "Gymkata" isn't awful by B-movie standards but it's also not great, for better or worse. It'd be great to see an updated version of this with fight choreography that was more sure of itself, but beyond that, I'm glad I settled for a rental with this one.