Gymkata proves that tiny gymnasts make tough heroes
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Director: Robert Clouse
Tagline: “A new kind of martial-arts combat! The skill of gymnastics… the kill of karate.”
Choice IMDB keywords: Kissing while having sex, ninja army, one man army, shoulder massage, male rear nudity, martial arts gymnastics
Plot: At the height of the Reagan era, someone had the bright idea to turn diminutive, soft-voiced, mulleted gymnast Kurt Thomas into an international action star. How? By positing him as a master of “gymkata,” a discipline that combines gymnastics—a sport most commonly associated with anorexic 12-year-old girls from former Soviet-bloc countries—with karate.
Gymkata casts Thomas as a master gymnast recruited by the Special Intelligence Agency to travel to the fictional country of Parmistan and participate in “The Game,” a combination endurance test/obstacle course/fighting tournament whose winner is allowed one request. The SIA wants Thomas to win the game and use his wish to have Parmistan host America’s controversial Star Wars missile-defense system. But first, Thomas must make a remarkable transition from male Kerri Strug to unstoppable killing machine. This is accomplished through a minute-long training montage centered on such invaluable fighting skills as chopping wood and walking around on his hands.
Thomas mixes business and pleasure by falling in love with his primary trainer, a beautiful, seemingly mute young woman (Tetchie Agbayani) who conveniently happens to be the princess of Parmistan. The two fall into bed after a minute or so of flirting (Thomas is a quick study), then depart to Parmistan, where, in one very tough day, Thomas learns that his father probably died playing The Game decades earlier, and Agbayani is scheduled to marry her father’s traitorous, rat-tail-sporting lead aide the following day.
Oh, and it turns out that the obstacle course for Game contenders winds through a village of the damned, populated solely by the criminally insane. While maneuvering his way through Crazy Town, Thomas makes a miraculous discovery: His father isn’t dead! In fact, he’s been chilling in the village of the criminally insane for years, apparently waiting for someone to show up and rescue him. The reunion is short-lived, however, as Thomas’ proud papa takes an arrow in the back about a minute after he’s joyously reunited with his son. Dad dies, after leaving Thomas with some final words of inspiration: “Win, Johnny!”
Thomas does win, and a caps-heavy, punctuation-free film-closing caption reveals, “In 1985 The First Early Warning Earth Station Was Placed In Parmistan For The U.S. Star Wars Defense Program,” thereby eliminating the lingering threat of nuclear destruction forever and ever. All thanks to the gymnastics prowess of a tiny little man.
Key scenes: Thomas meets cute with love interest/trainer Agbayani when she ties his hands together, hits him in the nuts, strangles him with a rope, slams him against a wooden support beam, and karate-chops him from behind. Aw! You just know those crazy kids are gonna end up together.
In an attempt to melt the icy façade of the ostensibly mute princess, Thomas conducts both sides of an imaginary conversation with her while flipping backward and forward to more closely replicate what that pretend chat might actually look like. The princess is moderately amused by Thomas’ high-pitched girly voice—it meshes nicely with his girly sport of choice—and they make out, though she does produce a switchblade in the middle of their kissing session. Her indignation is short-lived, however, and less than a minute later, she’s giving him a sensual massage, then making sweet love to him. They truly are the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of star-crossed, semi-verbal international lovers.
Shortly thereafter, a stranger throws water on Thomas after finding out about his nationality. “So much for Karabal nightlife,” Thomas whines. “There’s just a little anti-American sentiment running around,” his handler says, in one of many lines that appears poorly translated from another language. Then he’s immediately shot with an arrow, suggesting he might have slightly underestimated the level of anti-American sentiment running around. This leads to the first of many action sequences that are 90 percent gymnastics workout and 10 percent punching and kicking, yet leave henchmen lying dazed in the street all the same.
Then, Thomas stumbles upon a pipe suspiciously like the workout bar he uses in gymnastics—what are the odds?—and uses it to defeat some generic bad guys. He also accidentally kicks a bicyclist in the head, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
Later, in the town of the criminally insane, Thomas squares off against a scythe-wielding lunatic so insane that he cuts off his own hand when he touches a (presumably hot?) pipe, rather than just pulling free and leaving himself unmutilated. Thomas doesn’t play favorites when it comes to violence: When a gang of crazy women attacks him, he pulls a Nicolas Cage and punches two of them out.
In the town square of the crazy-people village, Thomas stumbles upon something that looks suspiciously like a pommel horse—again, what are the odds?—and uses it to his advantage, dispatching a bunch more heavies.
Can easily be distinguished by: It’s the one film bold enough to combine the badass action of Bruce Lee (in an earlier, more dignified life, Gymkata director Robert Clouse helmed the seminal Bruce Lee masterpiece Enter The Dragon) with the girly gymnastics pageantry of Mary Lou Retton.
Sign it was made in 1985: The plot hinges on the controversial Star Wars missile program championed by Ronald Reagan, and stars a championship gymnast whose national renown was already starting to fade by the time Gymkata was released.
Timeless message: International conflicts are best resolved through the heroics of effete gymnasts.
Memorable quotes: “Do not hear the wood split. Hear the only sound of axe cutting the air. Read the air itself. It has much say to you,” a grammatically challenged Zen master tells Thomas during the wood-chopping portion of his martial-arts training.
And the man who recruits Thomas gets to the heart of the film’s timelessly silly premise with these words: “One of the problems that you’ve got to face is being able to distill the essence of what you’ve learned. It’s a subtle blend of the martial arts of the east and the fighting skills of the west. You know karate and your own special blend of gymnastics.” Wait, Thomas knows gymnastics? Then for fuck’s sake, why doesn’t that factor into the film more?