“I’ve always wanted to see Gymkata,” I innocently remarked to Erik one day at Comics Factory. Several weeks later, a small group gathered at my place to watch this 1985 oddity. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were creating Yakmala, our bad movie group that has lasted these seven years and will probably last until our children are old enough to be embarrassed by it. Our name even comes from this film, it being the Parmistani word for “hooray.” Or possibly “my mustache is eating my face.”
Tagline: The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate
More Accurate Tagline: …the thrill of lawn care.
Guilty Party: This is a difficult one. Do I blame director Robert Clouse for attempting to recapture the magic he found in Enter the Dragon? Do I blame Dan Tyler Moore, who wrote the book this was based on? Do I blame Kurt Thomas for wanting an acting career? No, in this case, I have another culprit. 1985 was one year after the Los Angeles Olympics led to a short-lived obsession for sports with judges. You couldn’t go to the store in 1985 without fighting like six hundred ninjas. And Ronald Reagan was obsessed with Star Wars. Not the movies, which were still good back then, but the missile defense system famous for being able to stop nine out of ten genocide bombs. So I’m blaming 1985 for Gymkata.
Synopsis: The film opens by intercutting slow motion gymnastics with shots of ninjas on horseback, thus beginning the movie on the cinematic equivalent of combining peanut butter and sodomy. Turns out these ninjas are hunting some guy in bright green sweatpants. He makes it to a rope bridge, where the leader of the ninjas, Commander Zamir (who looks like a cross between a Padawan Learner and an Australian porn star), shoots the hapless guy with an arrow. The guy falls, presumably to his death.
The slomo gymnast is our hero, Jonathan Cabot (actual gymnast Kurt Thomas), and the guy in the green sweats was his dad. Some other guy who had been watching Cabot with creepy intensity during the gymnastics exhibition has somehow lured Cabot out to a large house in the country. Creepy guy explains that they will train Cabot. Any questions?
I have one. Who the fuck are you?
Creepy guy turns out to be Paley, an agent of the Special Intelligence Agency, though I had to infer this from dialogue, rather than anyone actually introducing themselves. While we’re at it, whose house are we supposed to be in? Did Paley drag Cabot out into the woods, or did he just steal Cabot’s house?
Okay, so here’s the deal. There’s this tiny country called Parmistan somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountain range, that would make an ideal location for an SDI base. Anyone who enters Parmistan must play The Game, which is basically an obstacle course through which ninjas are allowed to hunt you. If you win, you get one wish from the Kahn, leader of Parmistan, but no one has won in 900 years. The SIA’s plan: win The Game and ask for the SDI base. But first, Cabot needs to be trained, his gymnastics combined with karate to create a new, altogether more ridiculous martial art: Gymkata!
Somehow the training requires walking up a flight of stairs on his hands, watching a blindfolded maniac have a sickle fight with himself, and standing very still in the hopes that one guy’s giant pet eagle doesn’t mistake his nose for a small dog. Princess Rubali, daughter of the Kahn and bipolar knife enthusiast is on hand to teach Cabot to trust no one and eventually romances him. Maybe she has a thing for mullets and scrotum-slipping shorts.
Once he’s fully trained and done planting an heir in the princess, Cabot heads to Karabal, on the Caspian Sea, from which he’ll journey to Parimstan, “by pack mule and then not all the way.” Understandable, due to the sophisticated pack mule sensors along the Parmistani borders. Cabot and Rubali meet up with SIA agent Colonel Mackal, whom Cabot helpfully explains is called “The Stork.” Presumably because of his lucrative baby-smuggling operation.
The Stork turns out to be working for The Other Side (no one will say Russia, so feel free to pretend the U.S. government is locked in a life-or-death struggle with the Republic of Molossia). Cabot seems more disappointed in the Stork than angry and gymnastics his way out of the death trap. They get into Parmistan via rafting (still unclear how they managed to white water raft uphill, but then, I’m not a master of Gymkata). A short ninja-based misunderstanding later, and Cabot is fast tracked into the Game along with a couple other guys in bright, day glow tracksuits. Camouflage existed in the ‘80s. I remember. I owned a pair of camo pants. Don’t judge, it was the ‘80s and we were in constant terror of Vietnam or something. Look, it made sense at the time.
Anyway, after the Game, the Kahn plans to marry Rubali off to Commander Zamir, who is also working for The Other Side. The first step is basically a foot race with some rope climbing and rope bridges thrown in, while being pursued by heavily armed ninjas on horseback. Then they have to go through the Village of the Damned, which is an actual, functional village where Parmistan puts all of their criminally insane. It’s basically Borat’s version of Arkham City.
Cabot is nearly killed in the village before being rescued by a mysterious ninja that turns out to be his dad. Don’t ask. Zamir shows up, and Cabot kills him with his taint. Gymkata is triumphant.
Life-Changing Subtext: Foreign policy should be conducted along the lines of MXC.
Defining Quote: “In 1985 The First Early Warning Earth Station Was Placed In Parmistan For The U.S. Star Wars Defense Program.” Not a line of dialogue, but rather the film’s text epilogue. There’s a small problem here. Can you find it?
Standout Performance: While the Kahn amuses me, mostly for looking exactly like Mel Brooks doing a Tom Selleck impression, I have to give this one to man-mountain Thorg (Bob Schott). When Thorg waddles onscreen for the first time, Cabot professes to be an admirer of Thorg’s “from Munich.” One hopes this means Thorg was in the olympics there, and not involved with the terrorism.
What’s Wrong: The central problem with Gymkata is Gymkata. We don’t watch martial arts films like we watch Errol Morris documentaries. We’re not looking for realism, but we at least want to feel like a martial art could conceivably win a fight with someone a little more threatening than your grandma. Gymkata can’t even win a fight against shame. Kurt Thomas flips around, throwing spastic kicks, and occasionally bad guys fall down and feign unconsciousness to make him feel better.
Flash of Competence: The twin pastimes of Parmistan are facial hair and archery. Seriously, kids spend all their time shooting bows and growing beards. If a Parmistani has you in his sights, two things are gonna happen. One, you’re going to reflect on how much he looks like the Iron and Wine guy. Two, you’re about to get an arrow in the chest.
Best Scenes: Kurt Thomas really wants you to see his pubes. Much of his early training consists of climbing a staircase on his hands. Don’t know why. It never comes up again. While doing this, he’s wearing German tourist shorts that are about a half-inch of fabric from being bikini bottoms. And the camera is above him the whole time. Lingering on his taint. Maybe this was foreshadowing of Cabot’s ultimate weapon.
Cabot likes Rubali, but she refuses to do interact with him beyond a few attempted stabbings. So he pulls out the most hoary of cliches: the one-sided conversation. You’ve probably done it to someone in your life. Your side of the conversation in a normal voice, theirs in a high-pitched one. Cabot does this, but instead of turning around like a normal person, he executes a flip and half-turn. This, of course, began the Yakmala tradition of jumping around like an asshole.
Gymkata as an art depends on seeding gymnastics equipment throughout your environs, and then hoping someone attacks you. During a fight in Karabal (on the Caspian Sea), Cabot discovers a bar between two buildings, about ten feet off the ground and already conveniently covered in chalk. He uses this to spin around while bad guys walk into his legs and wonder where their lives went wrong.
Transcendent Moment: Nothing beats the final showdown in the Village of the Damned for sheer Gymkata awesomeness. In the village square, there is a rather oddly shaped well. It seems to have handles in the top, despite, you know, being attached to the ground and all. Surrounded by the criminally insane, Cabot does what any master of Gymkata would do: uses the well as an improvised pommel horse (the only time that’s ever been a thing), and proceeds to kick the lunatics in the face one by one.
Gymkata is the very first Yakmala film. If that isn’t a damning legacy, I don’t know what is.