MOVIE REVIEW: Gymkata (1985)

Just as one can argue that there are different types of good movies, there are also different types of bad movies. They can be bad due to directorial overreach, inane dialogue, inept acting, or awful effects. However, the worst sin a movie can commit is to be boring. Movies are inteded to entertain – when a movie fails to do even that, it is irredeemably Bad.

Boring movies are not the ones that attract legions of followers. It’s the others, the ones that fail on technical levels. The ones where we, the audience, can either point and laugh at the great heap of failure on screen, or gape open-mouthed in disbelief at what we have just seen. Those are the ones worth watching. And sometimes, even as we slog through the mountain of garbage, we discover something that makes us say, “You know, that bit wasn’t completely awful.”

In the late 1970s, Kurt Thomas was one of the top gymnasts in the world. He was widely expected to win a couple of gold medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics – until the United States boycotted them.  Still active as a gymnast but fading from the competitive scene, Thomas was picked by MGM to appear in a movie where he’d get to show off all his mad gymnastic skillz. Several athletes have gone on to successful acting careers – Thomas is not one of them.

Gymkata has Thomas in the role of Jonathan Cabot, a top gymnast (a real stretch for him, no doubt) recruited by some secret government agency to be a special agent. Seems that the small nation of Parmistan would be the ideal site for a “Star Wars” defense installation, but the place is so remote and isolated that normal diplomatic procedures are out of the question. The king, it seems, refuses to allow outsiders into his realm. If you want to get anything from him, you need to survive a deadly obstacle course. After that, you can ask for anything.

Thomas’ father was sent earlier, but he didn’t make it back and is presumed dead. So not only does Thomas have to win the contest; he also has to find his father. And there will be representatives of other nations competing at the same time, so he’ll have to watch his back. Apparently it’s easier for people to get out of Parmistan; assisting Thomas in his training is the lovely love interest, Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani). As a former Playboy model, Agbayani is definitely easy on the eyes. Luckily for her (and probably for us), she is 90% eye candy and has little in the way of dialogue.

One example of the general inanity of the film: After finishing his training (which for some reason involves a lot of walking up a flight of stairs on his hands while wearing shorts – sorry for that image), Thomas is told he will be going to “Karabal, on the Caspian Sea”. The very next shot is of some vaguely Persian-type city on a large body of water, which a VERY large subtitle informs us is “Karabal, on the Caspian Sea”. I would have never guessed! Thank you, Mr. Subtitle!

After arriving in Parmistan (after some hiking in a forest and rafting, which don’t look particulary difficult – this is supposed to be a remote and isolated country?), we get into “Most Dangerous Game” territory. Sort of. The king, who has been set up to be some sort of brutal dictator, turns out to be a kindly grandfather figure. The kind of guy who would offer you some homemade borscht before you got down to the serious business of toasting each other with vodka.

Not all is well in Parmistan. Zamir (Richard Norton) has been planning a coup for some time, and he is expected to interfere with the Game. Have to get some excitement from somewhere! Most stages of the course are designed to let Thomas use his gymnastics skills. Except for the stage where the contestants must go through the “Village of the Damned”. This is a small walled town where they’ve been dumping all their crazies. If you are familiar with “Silent Hill”, that’s the idea.

And it is in that Village where we get the epitome of this type of Bad Movie. We’ve sat through what seemed like days of inane dialogue, stupid situations, and non-acting. Now we get our reward.

The Village is one of these densely packed old towns, with narrow, twisting streets, oddly shaped buildings, and alleys to nowhere. There’s a thin fog over it all, giving a decidedly ethereal atmosphere. As Thomas creeps along, looking for the way out, people start appearing. These are your “Old Russian Peasant” types, with missing teeth and weird body types. And they are stark raving mad. The menace builds, and for the first time you actually do care about Thomas.

Then it all falls apart.

Thomas is herded by the pitchfork-wielding loonies into a small square. By pure coincidence (in other words, it was in the script), the square contains a large stone block with handles on the top (presumably some sort of hitching post) that is the exact size and shape of a pommel horse. The device Thomas is an expert on, to the point that a couple of maneuvers on it are named after him.

Needless to say, Thomas mounts the horse (you know what I mean!) and goes into a standard routine. The villagers are so insane that instead of using any weapons, they close in one at a time in just such a manner that they can be knocked out as Thomas’ feet swing by.

The disconnect between the honest suspense of what came before and this silliness is enough to make you fall on the floor laughing. These are the moments Bad Movie buffs long for.

Anyway, Thomas wins the Game, kills Zamir, finds and resuces his father, gets the girl (presumably), and wins the right to have a “Star Wars” facility placed in Parmistan.

Wow. What can one say? This movie fails utterly on almost every matter that counts. But it still manages to entertain for an hour and a half or so. So does that make it a “good” movie? I’m not going to say that you need to track down a copy and watch it immediately or else your life is without meaning. But if you could use a good laugh, heat up some popcorn and get some of your favorite beverage…. and watch a movie that at the very least, won’t be an utter waste of your precious time.

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