(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.
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
|"You stay classy, Parmistan!"
|Robert Clouse with Bruce Lee on
the set of ENTER THE DRAGON
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.