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Cult Classics Revisited: GYMKATA (1985)

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GYMKATA
(US - 1985)

Directed by Robert Clouse. Written by Charles Robert Carner.  Cast: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton, Edward Bell, John Barrett, Conan Lee, Bob Schott, Buck Kartalian, Eric Lawson, Sonny Barnes, Tadashi Yamashita. (R, 90 mins)

Boasting a premise so ridiculous and doomed to fail that it could almost be made an honorary Cannon film, GYMKATA was an attempt by director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub to replicate the success they enjoyed with 1973's ENTER THE DRAGON.  Beginning with that influential classic, the pair teamed on ten films from 1973 to 1991, and 1985's GYMKATA is probably their most ludicrous.  Instead of the late Bruce Lee, they had champion gymnast Kurt Thomas, who was deemed a lock for the gold medal had the US not boycotted the 1980 Olympics.  In his day, he was the top name in men's gymnastics, with two legendary moves--the Thomas Salto and the Thomas Flair, both displayed in GYMKATA--named after him.  By 1985, Thomas was retired from competition and tried to break into movies.  He never made another one after GYMKATA.



 

Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, a champion gymnast (duh) sent by the US government to the fictional Middle East mountain nation of Parmistan, where the US military wants to set up a satellite station.  In order to infiltrate Parmistan, Cabot must be a participant in The Game, a to-the-death obstacle course through the country's dangerous terrain, and it's a tournament that no outsider has survived in over 900 years.  The Game is personal to Cabot:  his secret agent father (Eric Lawson) was killed playing it.  Cabot also falls in love with Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani), daughter of Parmistan leader The Kahn (Buck Kartalian), who's already promised his daughter to his treacherious chief aide and Game overseer Zamir (Richard Norton), who's amassed his own ninja army to kill the Game participants and overthrow The Kahn.


GYMKATA follows the "to the death" tournament template established by ENTER THE DRAGON that would continue to be used in countless martial arts films for years to come, most notably 1988's BLOODSPORT.  Other than the gymnastics angle (the one-sheet's tag line boasted "A new kind of martial arts combat!  The skill of gymnastics.  The kill of karate"), GYMKATA plays pretty much like a typical mid-1980s ninja movie...at least until a little past the one hour mark, when Cabot makes his way to the most dangerous part of The Game:  The Village of the Crazies, an isolated part of Parmistan where the country's insane have been dumped for generations.  Once Cabot enters the village, the film goes into a completely unexpected direction.  I can't decide if it's the silliest set piece in all of martial arts cinema or something that could work as a brilliant stand-alone short horror film.  It makes as much sense out of context as in, so what the hell?  Here it is, and if you're watching it MST3K-style, be sure to yell "Vic Tayback, no!" at 4:38 into the clip





Once you get over the fact that the Village of the Crazies' town square conveniently has a rock-cut pommel horse should someone like Kurt Thomas ever pass through, there's a lot to appreciate in that extended sequence.  It belongs in another movie altogether and almost plays like something in a weird Eurotrash or Jess Franco fever dream: the fog, the noises the villagers make and the way they shamble about like zombies, the eerie and deliberately off-putting music, the two creepy-as-shit guys from 6:15-7:00.  It's easy to laugh once Cabot hops on the pommel horse and starts Thomas Flair-ing the whole village.  But up to then?  Sentence me to the Village of the Crazies, but it's a brilliant sequence.  Doesn't belong in GYMKATA, but brilliant nonetheless.


"You stay classy, Parmistan!"
But the other 77 or so minutes of GYMKATA are mostly of the so-bad-it's-funny variety.  Thomas can't act; Cabot's training montage gets us dangerously close to a Thomas taint shot as he handstand-walks up some stairs;  there's a near-record number of hilarious dummy deaths and people suddenly being silenced by arrows; Thorg, a hulking, homicidal Game participant played by Bob Schott, looks like a roid-raging Will Ferrell; and The Kahn, played by Kartalian with a bushy moustache and a hilarious combover, seems less like the leader of a Middle Eastern nation and more like a rejected Sid Caesar character.  If GYMKATA is ever remade as an intentional comedy in the next few years, not only does Ferrell have to play Thorg, but Mel Brooks must play The Kahn.

 
Robert Clouse with Bruce Lee on
the set of ENTER THE DRAGON
Clouse (1928-1997) was a journeyman director who didn't really set out to specialize in martial arts movies but they kept getting offered to him and he was good at making them.  If he was adept at filming well-choreographed fight scenes, it could be that he focused more on the visual aspects of his films for one important reason:  he was completely deaf for much of his career, relying on production assistants to monitor the line readings of the actors.  After gaining notoriety as a still photographer and directing two Oscar-nominated short subjects in the early 1960s, Clouse was 42 when he made his feature debut with the Rod Taylor vehicle DARKER THAN AMBER (1970), which got good reviews but wasn't a big box office success. It did feature an epic fight between Taylor and William Smith that demonstrated Clouse's innate talent for such sequences. Clouse followed his debut later the same year with the obscure romantic drama DREAMS OF GLASS, notable today only for featuring Danny De Vito in his film debut, buried in the credits as "Thug." When Clouse had his first box office smash three years later with ENTER THE DRAGON, he was obviously overshadowed by the star power of Bruce Lee, who died a week before the film's release.  Having enjoyed the massive worldwide success of their first project together, Clouse and Weintraub reteamed with DRAGON co-star Jim Kelly for 1974's BLACK BELT JONES, which became a major blaxploitation hit.  Kelly co-starred with Joe Don Baker in GOLDEN NEEDLES, another Clouse film from 1974, and Clouse would work with Baker again on the 1977 wild-dogs-on-the-rampage horror film THE PACK.  After the 1975 Yul Brynner post-nuke prototype THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR and the 1977 Robert Mitchum thriller THE AMSTERDAM KILL, Clouse, without Weintraub, would complete the shelved project Lee was working on at the time of his death, which would become 1979's dubious GAME OF DEATH, precariously held together by ten minutes of footage Lee directed in 1973.  Clouse constructed a plot around the salvageable Lee material that he had and used unconvincing doubles, superimpositions, and clumsily-integrated stock footage to complete what was billed as Lee's "final" film.  GAME OF DEATH isn't very good and features perhaps cinema's least convincing double-for-a-long-dead-star since Ed Wood's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), released three years after star Bela Lugosi's death, with Wood's chiropractor walking around with a cape over his face pretending to be Lugosi. Nevertheless, Lee's climactic showdown with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (shot by Lee in 1973) is one for the ages.  Clouse made a couple of live-action made-for-TV Disney movies (1979's THE LONDON CONNECTION and 1980's THE KIDS WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) before he and Weintraub gave American audiences their first mainstream exposure to Jackie Chan in 1980's THE BIG BRAWL.  Clouse followed that with the martial-arts thriller FORCE: FIVE (1981) and DEADLY EYES (1983), one of several early '80s "monster rat" horror movies.  By the time Clouse got to GYMKATA, he was clearly in coast mode.  He only made three more films, all produced by Weintraub, all of them going straight-to-video: two Cynthia Rothrock actioners (1990's CHINA O'BRIEN and 1991's CHINA O'BRIEN II) and 1992's IRONHEART, starring BLOODSPORT bad guy Bolo Yeung, who also had a small role in ENTER THE DRAGON.  


If Clouse liked an actor, he tried to keep working with them.  He made three films with Jim Kelly, two with Joe Don Baker, and two with B-movie badass William Smith (who also appeared in THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR) but his favorite actor, based on recurrent appearances in Clouse films, was probably the Australian Norton, who first worked with Clouse on FORCE: FIVE and, starting with GYMKATA, would co-star in the director's final four films. Norton, who has a sort-of David Carradine-like presence in GYMKATA, choreographed the film's fight scenes and was a ubiquitous C-lister in many low-budget exploitation and straight-to-video flicks from the '80s to well into the 2000s.  Now 63, he's still active in the business, mainly as a stunt and fight coordinator on big-budget films like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and the upcoming MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.


These days, GYMKATA is rightfully viewed through mocking MST3K goggles, but it's hardly the worst of its type.  It's just that no one was really asking for the skill of gymnastics and the kill of karate.  Amazingly, the film was backed by a major studio (MGM/UA) and opened nationwide on May 3, 1985, landing in tenth place at the box office.  Chuck Norris' cop thriller CODE OF SILENCE opened the same day and took the top spot, and it speaks volumes for GYMKATA's lack of appeal and the complete absence of Kurt Thomas star power that BEVERLY HILLS COP out-performed it by $300,000 in its 22nd week of release.  Thomas quickly found a home in sports broadcasting and it's not known whether he was ever approached about participating in the film's 2007 DVD release, but I'd like to think he has a good sense of humor about it.  GYMKATA may be a terrible movie, but it's a fun terrible movie, and I honestly can't praise the "Village of the Crazies" detour enough.  All respect to Clouse for fashioning a mini-masterpiece of a sequence where you least expect it, proof positive (along with ENTER THE DRAGON's legendary final showdown) that his disability enhanced his effectiveness with the purely visual side of directing, and it's a side of him that we just didn't see enough.  When people talk about the excellence of ENTER THE DRAGON and how it's the standard-bearer of commercial martial arts cinema, they talk about Bruce Lee, not Robert Clouse.  Ultimately, Clouse will go down in the film history books as a solid B-movie director and there's no shame in that.  But there may have been a genuine auteur lurking somewhere within him.


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