Is Gymkata stupid? YES.
Is Gymkata awesome? YES.
It is the action film that continuously asks, “How can we recreate “Enter the Dragon” for the tail end of the Cold War, using a gymnast as America’s secret weapon?” It also asks many other important questions, such as, “How do Kurt Thomas’s white pants stay so clean through so many battles to the death?” and “Can Kurt Thomas pull his white pants up any higher?” But most importantly, the age-old question: “Why, in the middle of a medieval hellhole town serving as an insane asylum for psychotic freaks so violent that none should still be standing, is there a crude-looking but otherwise REGULATION POMMEL HORSE?”
I first discovered Gymkata over a decade ago, on late-night TV, starting in the middle of the movie. This is the optimal viewing experience. Seen this way, the plot of the movie sloughs away, leaving the essential core: “A gymnastic, shorter version of MacGyver fights his way out of some kind of violent land of pure sadism. Surreal combat just won’t stop.”
Seen in its entirety, the movie drips with Hollywood clichés and cumbersome set-ups, not to mention the cheapest of twists. Our hero, Jonathan, must find his missing father, plus secure American military advantage in the sicko Islamoid (very ahead of its time in a Fox-News kind of portrayal of a backward nightmare Eurasian province) nation of Parmistan. Why the name reminiscent of an Italian cheese? You decide. For some fucking reason, this country makes all of its major political decisions based on “The Game,” a to-the-death footrace where a bunch of guys from different countries try to kill each other while a lot of low-skill ninjas also try to end their lives. If our man wins, America gets to put a Star Wars missile defense system there, or some shit. So, Gymkata kind of encapsulates the worldview of Ronald Reagan.
Parmistan is ruled by a nonsensical king who not only controls “The Game,” but also:
--resembles an offspring of Mark Twain and Joseph Stalin
--has a kung-fu badass daughter who looks Thai or Philippina, and is totally on our side
--is beloved by his people
--speaks perfect English and may not even be from his own country
--employs a military strongman who rides horses shirtless, spins and throws those 3-pronged knives that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Raphael uses, and lusts after the king’s daughter, AND commands the military (10 guys on horseback) in defiance of the king
--seems to run a nation of about 500 people
This film excels mainly at nonsense and offhanded cruelty. Our hero keeps it pretty clean, but even he succumbs once or twice to casual killing when killing is the name of the game. Highlights include: training montage where Jonathan learns to trust no one, and to anticipate silent attacks, culminating in the ability to walk up stairs on his hands; love triangle betwixt Jonathan, the princess, and the king’s chief guard; asshole international strength champion named “Thorg” who ignores our hero’s compliments, kicks our hero when he falls, then is killed by hogs and peasants with pitchforks; fights where gymnastic flips make even a glancing blow DEVASTATING; goddamn low-rent ninjas.
Where Gymkata really shines, however, is in its City of the Damned sequence. It shamelessly exploits actors with Down Syndrome and deformities to portray a place of psychotic inhumanity, but it also has a few genuinely bizarre, somewhat disturbing scenes:
--a priest in robes turns away, showing bare ass through backless garment
--a guy with a mask on the back of his head enters eerie combat after pretending to be a dummy
--a guy with a sickle chops off his own hand, apparently out of frustration for having missed his first swing at our hero
--stray dogs lapping at puddles of blood
The horror is constantly tamped down, however, by the onslaught of inescapably lighthearted gymnastic leaping, and of course the appearance of that universal symbol of hope and modernity, the pommel horse.
Addendum: On viewing a recent episode of "Globe Trekker," which explored Armenia, I was struck by the many parallels to Gymkata. I'm not kidding. If you watch Gymkata and think, "Man, I'd like to experience such a fearsomely backward land," consider a trip to Armenia.