Gymkata is one of those films that demands communal viewing. When one comes across a film whose centrepiece action sequences involves a pommel horse, which just happens to be in the middle of a rural village, you do not keep it to oneself. It is a film whose charms are not in what it does right, which is very little, but in all the glorious things it does badly. A little over a year ago, I read an article in which the author stated that there was no such thing as “movies that are so bad they are actually good”. Bad movies are simply bad movies. While that may be true, there is still something to be said for a film like Gymkata which can evoke a certain amount of joy solely based on the absurdity occurring on screen.
This is the type of film that sets up the entire plot within the first eight minutes and then spends the rest of the film’s 90 minute running time trying to wow us with its thrilling, and I use the term loosely, action. What makes the action so entertaining is simply how ridiculous it all is. The majority of the “Gymkata” moves, though never officially called that in the film, fall more in the spectrum of Gymnastic routines than they do karate. It does not help matters that the fight scenes are almost as lazily put together as the script itself.
The plot of Gymkata is wonderfully ludicrous and simple. Olympic gymnast Jonathan Cabot, played by former U.S. Olympian Kurt Thomas, is recruited by a special branch of the government to infiltrate to country of Parmistan. Considering that Parmistan is located near Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. government thinks it would be an ideal spot to build a monitoring station for their satellites. Time is of the essence though as the Russian government, as coincidence would have it, is also planning to build a station as well. The problem for both countries is that Parmistan remains closed off to foreigners. The only ones allowed to enter the land are those who are willing to participate in the deadly tournament known as “The Game.” A combination of a foot race, survival obstacle course and fight to the death, The Game is a competition that has a strict set of rules which are never truly explained. The only thing the audience really needs to know is that the winner of The Game gets to keep their life and is granted one wish. The intelligence agency that recruited Cabot is hoping that, if he wins, they can use his wish to convince the King of Parmistan, known as The Kahn (Buck Kartalian), to allow them to resurrect their monitoring station.
Of course surviving The Game will be no easy task as many, including Cabot’s own father, lost their lives in competition. Aside from putting Cabot through a rigorously training regime, the agency also enlisted the princess of Parmistan, Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani), to help prepare Cabot for the task that lies ahead. As sparks begin to fly between Cabot and Rubali, it is revealed that The Kahn has already promised Princess Rubali’s hand in marriage to Zamir (Richard Norton). The head of The Kahn’s army of ninjas, Zamir has his own plans for Parmistan which include planning a coup against The Kahn and eliminating Cabot at all cost.
What makes Gymkata so amusing, unintentionally mind you, is how serious the film takes itself. It is clear that after making memorable martial arts films such as Enter the Dragon, and to a lesser extent Black Belt Jones, director Robert Clouse envisioned Gymkata to be the next great martial arts film. Unlike Enter the Dragon, Gymkata lacks the intensity or acting chops to make the film truly work. Kurt Thomas may have the pretty boy looks, but his lines are delivered so woodenly that some of the abrupt edits that occur in the film seem like a blessing in disguise. On top of that Clouse never seems to settle on a particular tone for the film. Gymkata wants to be both a Bruce Lee film and a James Bond film at the same time. Yet Clouse incorporates these weird sections in the middle that play more like an artsy wannabe Giallo-style horror. It is an odd combination that evoked uncontrollable moments of laughter when watching.
As I mentioned earlier, Gymkata is not a good film but the bad moments, which are plentiful, are what makes it so entertaining to watch. It is the type of film that works best when you sit back and just let the insanity wash over you.