By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Gymkata,” MGM/Warner, 1985]
“The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate,” the poster screamed. “When you fight for ultimate stakes, you use the ultimate weapon!” the video box shouted. No one noticed.
“Gymkata”‘s reception was thoroughly unremarkable. The All Movie Guide called it “a standard no-plotter.” Roger Ebert reviewed the film, giving it one star, but could barely work up the strength to mock it. The movie grossed just over five and a half million dollars when it was first released theatrically in1985. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, in its first weekend of release, “Gymkata” made $1.2 million, ranking tenth at the box office behind a Chuck Norris vehicle, “Gotcha!” (a movie based on a squirt gun toy), “Ladyhawke” (starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and a bird) and, in its second month in theaters, “Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment.” To call “Gymkata” a footnote on the history of cinema would be to vastly overstate its importance.
In an aside during his review, Ebert hinted at the movie’s power. “I heard more genuine laughter during the screening than at three or four-so-called comedies I’ve seen lately,” he wrote. “I was even toying with praising the movie as a comedy.” Ever the forward-thinker, Ebert had stumbled onto an idea that would gradually take hold while the film languished in an even deeper obscurity than the one that met its initial release. This week, with very little fanfare, and without the benefit of bonus materials, “Gymkata” comes to DVD for the first time, a cult movie in desperate need of a cult.
As Ebert noted, it’s difficult to categorize “Gymkata” in simple good or bad terms. By any standard definition, the film is terrible. The acting is amateurish, the story confusing when it’s not altogether incoherent, and the dialogue often sounds like it was written by a computer program designed to string together random words into sentences. But anyone who has seen “Gymkata” cannot deny that it also holds a strange sway over the viewer; it’s bad, but not painfully bad. In fact, it’s one of those movies that is so utterly misguided it’s almost pleasurable to watch. And it’s an easy to movie to watch again, and again. I’d estimate I’ve seen in nearly two dozen times in the last decade.
The plot and I swear to you I’m not making any of this shit up involves an American gymnast named Jonathan Cabot. After his secret agent father goes missing in action, Cabot is recruited to take his place in a deadly tournament called “The Game,” taking place in a made-up Eastern European country named Parmistan. The United States wants to launch a spy satellite from Parmistan and, for reasons left to the audience’s imagination, if Cabot wins The Game a contest whose main objective seems to be to not get shot in the chest with an arrow they will be allowed to do so.
Cabot is selected for this assignment because of his unique skill set: a hellacious mullet and his incredible gymnastic abilities. Before heading to scenic Parmistan, Cabot learns to combine his athletic prowess with beating the crap out of people, thus making him a practitioner of “gymkata.” This decision proves most fortuitous when Cabot arrives in Parmistan and finds that the obviously insane civil engineers who designed the country’s infrastructure chose to build gymnastics equipment into the country’s architecture. Hence, in the film’s signature moment, Cabot defends himself from a village of loony Parmistanians (more on them later) by swinging himself around on a well conveniently mounted with pommel horse handles.
Information about “Gymkata” is sketchy; few if any have ever cared to inquire about the film, and those involve probably preferred it to stay that way. The film is based on a long out-of-print novel, 1957’s “The Terrible Game” by Dan Tyler Moore, which was, according to the quote from The Cleveland Press adorning the paperback edition, “One of the most exciting stories in recent years.” It’s a nearly impossible book to track down (unless you want to shell out big bucks for it on eBay) but here’s one reader’s description I found online:
The USA and the “REDS” were competing for political advantage in a foreign “backwards” country. The country’s leader decided that their national military competition rules would be used to decide the better, more powerful country with which to align themselves. So our hero and his dad are chosen to travel and compete against a team from the RED side. The rules allow a competitor to kill an opponent under certain circumstances.
Astonishingly, this description makes “Gymkata” sound like a fairly faithful adaptation; subtract the dude in the gym shorts kicking guys on the uneven bars and you’ve basically got “The Terrible Game,” right down to the illogical geopolitical implications and national pastime that’s almost as barbaric as lacrosse.
But the broad strokes don’t get at the totality of the wackiness that is “Gymkata,” from the expository scene set against the backdrop of a couple of men in a warehouse shoveling an enormous mountain of what looks like cocaine to the alarming number of close-ups of Thomas’ crotch to the Parmistanian city known only as “The Village of the Crazies,” where the townspeople are crazy, the livestock is crazy and the monetary unit is the crazy (1 crazy equals roughly 1/650th of an American dollar). It is here that Cabot climbs his pommel horse well, so, if we choose to, we can believe that the Crazies in the Village of the Crazies built it that way because are so batshit insane.
In reality, all the gymnastics equipment is there because the star of the film is Kurt Thomas, a world class US gymnast. Thomas won a gold medal in floor exercise at the 1978 and 1979 World Championships, and was heavily favored to win a gold at the 1980 Summer Olympics until the US boycotted the event over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, giving Thomas’ rightful medal to that scoundrel Roland Bruckner of East Germany. His Olympic potential squandered, Thomas’s legacy consists of a floor exercise move named after him (“the Thomas flair”) and a movie in which he has a karate fight with a shirtless man in a pigpen. He now runs a gymnastics training facility in Texas.
I first saw “Gymkata” on a bootleg VHS acquired by my friend’s father on a trip somewhere in Asia. It may as well have come from another planet; I had never and have since never seen anything like it. In many ways it is the ideal so-bad-it’s-good movie: innocent yet silly, dopey yet exciting, dumb yet quirky, mundane yet (village of the) crazy. And it remains the ideal movie to convert nonbelievers to the joys of stupid movies I’ve turned many a snob into a devout bad movie head with a single viewing.
The only thing keeping “Gymkata” from its rightful place in the cult firmament is availability. It rarely airs on television, and it’s been out-of-print since well into the last century; as if it too has been subject to a worldwide boycott. Finally released this week as part of an Amazon.com’s program designed to let online shoppers decide what titles Warner Home Video would release a contest I’m proud to say I influenced by getting everyone I know to vote it is ready for its moment in the sun. Here’s hoping it sticks the landing.