Monday, 15 July 2013

Gymkata (1985)

Martial arts films are tough to do well, and the best ones usually have a charismatic star with a unique style, who can overcome any deficiencies in the script, direction or cast. Gymkata, an 80s oddity starring Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas, does not have this, but fortunately it manages to compensate by being as deliciously silly and unhinged as it is incompetent.

Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, a champion gymnast recruited by the US government to infiltrate the tiny but brutally primitive country of Parmistan. They need the permission of the King of Parmistan to build a missile defence site, and, for some reason, the only way they can get this is by having Cabot compete in a brutal “Most Dangerous Game” style contest, called where losers are hunted to their deaths - but if anyone were to win, they would be granted one wish.

Gymkata is directed by Robert Clouse, who, more than a decade earlier, had made the bona fide genre classic Enter the Dragon, and with a similar plot (athlete hired by government for secret mission), it feels like he is trying to recreate the same magic with Gymkata. However there are several elements that make the earlier film a classic, namely the star Bruce Lee and his unique fighting style, the excellent supporting cast (Jim Kelly, John Saxon, and the villainous Kien Shih and Bolo Yeung), as well as the superb brassy, funky soundtrack from Lalo Schifrin. Gymkata, unfortunately, has nothing to compete with any of these.

It is common for martial arts films to have a unique selling point about the star or their fighting style. In the case of Gymkata, it is the supposed mix of Cabot's gymnastics skills with more traditional eastern fighting styles. This is a mix that certainly has potential, and Thomas isn't a bad fighter, athletic and nimble on his feet, and let's not forget that Bruce Lee was an excellent dancer in his youth, something clearly evident in the graceful sometimes almost balletic look of his on-screen fighting.

But Lee also had bags of on-screen charisma and as well as a deep understanding of how to make fighting look good on screen, projected a real sense of danger, something completely lacking in Thomas. Thankfully, the dull lead actor is more than compensated for by the gloriously silly, albeit also slightly baffling, screenplay.

Right from the start, we get a training montage, a staple of films such as this, and this really sets the tone for the film : equal parts  unpredictable and inexplicable. In keeping with the blend of East and West used in the fighting style, one of his trainers is a huge muscular man who yells at our hero while seemingly trying to kill him. The other is an Asian guy with a hawk, who spouts sound-bites of wisdom and makes Cabot walk up the stairs on his hands, over and over again. This is not accompanied by any “Eye of the Tiger” type music, but simply lots of slightly incongruous cartoon sound effects

Quite why anyone would volunteer to play "The Game" is hard to tell, as nobody has come out of it alive in hundreds of years. However, the King of Parmistan is to be admired for his optimistic boast that he can grant any wish, given that he rules a country that seemingly lacks both electricity and indoor plumbing.

Still, the approach to mental health is something I haven't seen anywhere else. The mentally ill are all sealed up in their own walled city, complete with livestock and a huge array of sharp knives. Oh, and a courtyard containing nothing but a Pommel Horse, which our hero conveniently takes full advantage of to take on an army of attackers, who, conveniently, attack him one at a time.

Any film this relentlessly silly and botched is eventually going to amass a cult following, so it came as no surprise to read that in 2006 Gymkata won an online poll conducted by Amazon and consequently won a DVD release. While Gymkata may lack slickness and competence in front of and behind the camera, it has a cheerful silliness and energy that means things rarely get boring, and while it never reaches the truly unhinged heights of the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space or Troll 2, this is highly recommended for fans of entertainingly bad films.