Kurt Thomas as Jonathan Cabot
Tetchie Agbayani as Princess Rubali
Richard Norton as Zamir
Buck Kartalian as The Kahn
Screenplay by Charles Robert Carner
Story by Dan Tyler Moore
Directed by Robert Clouse
For as long as I can remember, I've always thought that martial arts films were fun pieces of entertainment. I rented almost every Jackie Chan film from my local video store. He was one of my idols as a kid. I loved his mixture of humor with his fighting style. I've also seen a few Bruce Lee films over the years and some kung fu movies. So Gymkata sounded like a movie I would really enjoy. I put it on my Amazon wishlist and got it for Christmas last year. The night before B-fest this year, our group watched some movies that Tim had brought in the lobby. We started with Tarkan Versus the Vikings and once we had finished it, most of us went back to our hotel rooms for bed, but the few who stayed in the lobby started Gymkata and I saw a bit of the opening and was excited to finally review it.
Gymkata is a big load of dumb fun. I think male gymnastics must have been big in the 80s, because the star of this movie is Kurt Thomas, who was an Olympic gymnast at the time, and I feel like some producer saw him on TV and thought that he'd make a good movie star.
The movie starts with a shot of our main character, Jonathan Cabot, doing gymnastics, while it cuts to footage of horses galloping on a beach. It's a weird opening, but the movie then wastes no time as a SIA, Special Intelligence Agency, agent comes to Cabot to recruit him to play in "the Game", which is a competition in the fictional country of Parmistan. All foreigners are forced to play the game. It's basically a race across obstacles of endurance while the competitors are chased by local warriors. If anyone wins, they are granted their life and a wish. The SIA agent tells Cabot that no one has won the game in 900 years, but Cabot has incentive to go, because his father played in the game and went missing. They also want him to compete in it, because if he wins, they want him to use his wish to install a US satellite monitoring station that can act as an early warning system for a nuclear attack. Cabot begins his training and we get a montage, of course.
Cabot meets Princess Rubali and after probably not even after two minutes of screen time together, they're in love and they start kissing. The movie wastes no time in these first fifteen minutes. They trim the fat and for this movie, it works, because you want it to just get to the action, because Kurt Thomas is not a very charismatic actor. He's at his best when he's showing off his gymnastic skills. At almost exactly fifteen minutes in, Cabot is in Parmistan. However, the actual plot doesn't kick in for another fifteen minutes.
While Cabot and Rubali are visiting a local market, they are attacked by some terrorists and Cabot must use his "gymkata" to fight them and save the princess. He comes across a random pole on his way to where the princess is being held and he does gymnastics on it, while kicking every person in the face who comes after him. I like that his hands are chalked up already when he gets onto the pole. Although I can accept that the pole would be there, maybe it's a pipe or a laundry line. Cabot saves the princess and a chase scene happens. There are terrorists with guns around almost every corner they turn, but they still get away.
They escape in a raft that they take down the river, but they are stopped by Parmistan warriors and Cabot is brought back to the king's palace. The king, known as the Khan, is played by Buck Kartalian, who looks like an actor who belongs in a comedy. He's Rubali's father and these two look like that they could not be any less related. The actress playing Rubali is of Asian descent, while Kartalian is a white man with a poor comb over. The Khan shows the contestants a map of the course and it looks like a diorama that someone made for their school project. It doesn't look too bad, actually. While waiting for the game to begin, Cabot learns from Rubali that Zamir, the Khan's right hand man and the manager of the game, is planning a coup against the Khan and that he will sell the satellite rights to the enemy. He also intends to marry Rubali. I like how much they make Zamir look like a total asshole. They give him a braid in his hair, so that he looks dickish and at the feast that takes place the night before, he takes off his shirt and shows off his skills with sais and tells Cabot, "She's mine." This guy could not be a more cliched villain if they gave him a mustache to twirl. He doesn't really ham it up, but he's definitely appropriate for the part.
The game begins and the contestants have to go through a few trials. For the first one, they have to climb a rope while outrunning Zamir and his warrirors on horses. A few of them make it, but those who don't are shot down by arrows. Zamir doesn't play fair and he constantly breaks the rules of the game, just so he can kill Cabot. The Khan's forces have been overpowered by Zamir's army and the Khan is pretty much oblivious. For the second trial, the contestants must go across ropes that are over a chasm. Zamir and his men catch up and they kill one of the contestants. He falls to his death and he becomes a dummy as he hits the rocks and the dummy's foot flies off.
After everyone else has died, Cabot is the only contestant left. He ends up in a village of crazy people who try to kill him. This is where things get really bizarre. One villager tries to attack Cabot and then just chops off his own hand and walks away. Another has a fake second face attached to the back of his head and another is almost completely dressed, but his entire backside is exposed. Cabot comes across a pommel horse and uses it to kick the elderly village people in the face and it makes for the most entertaining action scene in the film. The pole from earlier in the film was plausible for being there, but there is no reason for the pommel horse to be there other than to have Cabot do gymnastics on it.
Cabot is saved by one of the Parmistan warriors, who turns out to be his father. His father gives him some exposition on how he was injured in the game, but allowed to live and then he's shot in the back with an arrow. I was amazed at how useless the father was after he was revealed to be alive. He gives some exposition to his son and is shot almost immediately after that. Zamir catches up with Cabot and they fight until Cabot pins Zamir and breaks his neck with his thighs.
Rubali finally convinces the Khan that Zamir is plotting against him, so they then fight their way out of the palace and the Khan has the citizens go after the rest of Zamir's army. Cabot returns victorious, with his father, who still has an arrow in his back. The movie ends on a freeze frame with text revealing that the satellite station was installed.
Gymkata is a unique take on the martial arts genre. The combination of gymnastics and karate make for some fun action scenes. At 90 minutes, the movie wastes no time on drawn out scenes or overused exposition. It's a movie that does exactly what it sets out to do and that is to be entertaining.