Today’s feature is Gymkata, a peculiar gymnastics/martial arts hybrid movie that has become a beloved good-bad classic.
Gymkata was based on a novel written by Dan Tyler Moore called “The Terrible Game,” and the screenplay for the flick was contributed by Charles Robert Carner, who is best known for the Rutger Hauer movie Blind Fury and the 1997 remake of Vanishing Point.
Gymkata was directed by Robert Clouse, who was also behind the Cynthia Rothrock action flick China O’Brien, as well as the Bruce Lee classics Game of Death and Enter the Dragon.
The cinematographer for Gymkata was Godfrey Godar, who also served as director of photography on Game of Death and Howling IV. He is also an experienced camera operator, working on such films as Supergirl and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
Gymkata was edited by Robert Ferretti, who has cut such action movies as On Deadly Ground, Under Siege, Rocky V, Die Hard 2, Out For Justice, and Tango & Cash.
The effects team for Gymkata included Peter Dawson (Supergirl, Batman), Terry Glass (The Brothers Grimm, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Marijan Karoglan (Blubberella, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), Steve Purcell (Lethal Weapon 3, Risky Business), Angelo Mattei (Demons, Touch of Death), and Lamberto Marini (Alien 2: On Earth, The Exorcist: Italian Style, The Adventures of Hercules II, Sacco & Vanzetti).
The music for Gymkata was provided by Alfi Kabiljo, who also provided scores for the 1991 thriller Scissors, as well as the horror-comedy Transylvania 6-5000.
The cast of Gymkata was made up of primarily inexperienced players: Kurt Thomas (a professional gymnast), Tetchie Agbayani (a former Playboy model), fight coordinator Richard Norton (The Octagon, American Ninja, Stealth), Bob Schott (Head of the Family, In the Line of Fire), and stuntman John Barrett (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, American Kickboxer).
The plot of Gymkata surrounds a peculiar martial arts competition in the fictitious nation of Parmistan, of which no one has survived for centuries. The reward for completing the competition is the granting of any request, which catches the attention of the United States government, who wants to use Parmistan as the site for an experimental missile defense program. Agents recruit a young American to compete in the competition, whose father was previously lost within the boundaries of Parmistan. The young hero has to push his limits to survive the competition, and try to discover the fate of his missing father.
Kurt Thomas, the star of Gymkata, was a former championship gymnast, and performed all of his own stunts for the movie. He was a member of the 1976 US Olympic Gymnastics team, and was expected to compete for the gold medal in 1980, but the United States ultimately boycotted the Moscow-held games.
The plot of Gymkata references the “Star Wars” satellite missile defense program, which was a real Cold War program that was announced in 1983 by Ronald Reagan, but never really came to fruition. Still, the program became engrained in pop culture, and showed up in many films of the 1980s, like Spies Like Us, Real Genius, and RoboCop.
Surprisingly, the term “gymkata” is never used in the film to refer to the lead character’s fighting style. His unique method of combining martial arts with gymnastics is never really mentioned in the film, bringing into question why they didn’t just recruit a general martial arts master for the mission.
Though Gymkata is a cult classic now, it wasn’t well received at the time. It currently holds a 4.1 rating on IMDb, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 41% from users. I wasn’t able to dig up a budget for Gymkata, but it managed to gross just under $6 million in its lifetime theatrical run, which I assume was profitable given the absence of stars or complicated effects.
The action sequences in Gymkata are pretty entertaining, but the surroundings always seem a little too conveniently laid out to be handy for an aggressive gymnast. There is particularly no good reason for a sawhorse to be conveniently sitting in the middle of a penal village filled with zombie-people.
To the credit of Gymkata, I can’t say that the movie ever gets boring. The plot and characters are confounding throughout the run time, but there is always enough going on to keep you invested in the parade of nonsense happening on screen.
Gymkata features one of the least believable and most unnecessary twists that I have ever seen in a movie, particularly because it is made irrelevant within minutes of being revealed. I’m not going to spoil it because I absolutely recommend watching this movie, but it is astoundingly unnecessary and pulled out of left field.
Overall, Gymkata almost doesn’t qualify as a bad movie at all. The directing, shooting, and fight choreography is all pretty fantastic, but the story written around it all is just astoundingly nonsensical, and makes this into a wonderful little cult gem that seems to encapsulate all that is beautiful about 1980s action movies. Even the acting isn’t quite as bad as I would have expected, even from people who are essentially non-actors.
As I mentioned previously, Gymkata is a solid recommendation from me. If you want to know more about the film, it has been covered by We Hate Movies, How Did This Get Made, Red Letter Media, and even Cracked.com. However, I recommend watching it first before you dig any further into it, because it is more than worth the effort of watching with as little knowledge as possible.