Stars: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton and Edward Bell
Neither is establishing itself with credibility. Kurt Thomas, the man we saw on the high bar and are about to see on the parallel bars, was a real gymnast and a notably successful one: a Nissen Award winner, the first gymnast to win the James E Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete in the US and a gold medal winner at two different World Championships who is very likely to have won Olympic gold too had the US not boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980. In other words, he’s really good at what he does. However, what he does is gymnastics and that doesn’t help his credibility in this action film. Now, my grandfather was a gymnast who specialised in the rings, a discipline which requires massive strength and agility; he also served as a major in the Raiding Support Regiment, a special forces precursor to the SAS. So I know how tough gymnastics can be, but popular culture doesn’t. Popular culture says that male gymnasts are wimpy gay wusses. It doesn’t help that Thomas, who was 29 at the time, looked like he was half that.
Now, to be fair, the SIA are willing to let him train for two months to prepare with Tadashi Yamashita and Sonny Barnes, but the point is for him to invent an entirely new martial art, an odd mixture of karate and gymnastics, which I’m not sure anyone actually gets round to naming ‘gymkata’ but clearly provides the film’s title. From the inevitable training montages, it apparently involves running, punching and walking up a spiral staircase on your hands. Oh, and producing both back and forward standing somersaults with a half twist. Suddenly, merely knowing the difference between a punch and a kick isn’t enough for us to commentate on martial arts fights! I’m trying to figure out what a Thomas salto is and whether I just saw one. Oh, and the other character we meet at this point is the SIA’s own expert on the Game: Rubali, the stereotypically beautiful and deadly princess of Parmistan. Who’s mother was Indonesian. I guess insiders get out of the country a lot, even though the journey can only be taken by pack mule and kayak.
And, setting the scene for the rest of the film, wherever Cabot goes, his path is packed full of gymnastics equipment to leap onto so he can demonstrate his brand new martial art in a live environment. If you’re being chased round a alley corner, just leap into the air and there will be a high bar stretching across the way for you to use in a gymnastics routine that involves kicking people very hard indeed. I don’t believe we’re supposed to notice that it’s ready chalked for maximum grip. I can forgive this sort of thing a little, because Jackie Chan made a career out of it, but it shouldn’t be this blatant and it shouldn’t be prepared for the opportunity. Just wait for the Village of the Damned, whose town square contains a pommel horse ready for kick-ass gymnastics action! To be fair, I’m exaggerating a little here, as Cabot gets to do a lot of action scenes in places that don’t have gymnastics equipment, but I’d love to know how the filmmakers ever thought they’d get by with that pommel horse of death!
We also get the truly bizarre experience that is the Khan of Parmistan, who surely realised how ridiculous his role was and so played it up for laughs. He’s Buck Kartalian from Detroit, MI, the star of films like Cool Hand Luke, Planet of the Apes and Myra Breckenridge. Well, the star of Please Don’t Eat My Mother! aka Sexpot Swingers, but he did play lesser roles in those bigger pictures, often memorably, as Julius was in Planet of the Apes. Here, he comes across like Mel Brooks with his vast moustache and deadpan lines like ‘Anyone trying to avoid an obstacle will be instantly killed!’ He’s just outlining the Game here to a set of competitors: a three mile run to a swamp, a two hundred foot rope climb, half a mile more to the gorge, then into the river, on to the high forest, then the Village of the Damned and a five mile run through the swamp to get back to the city. ‘It’s not all at great risk,’ he suggests with bright eyes before donning his Russian fur hat and wandering off with a grin to play king for his people.
Of course, there’s plenty that’s completely awful, starting with the whole idea behind the film. Parmistan is a joke and its Khan is beyond a joke. The Princess could have been used substantially but she’s wasted in a routine romantic subplot. The rest of the plot is idiotic and overblown, apparently trying to outdo its early inanities with worse ones later on. If the Game wasn’t ridiculous enough to begin with, it’s rendered worse by the constant cheating and rulebreaking. Thorg is a ridiculous villain shoehorned into the second half of the film, Bob Schott looking like a drunk Matt Hardy. The wedding angle is stupid, as is the ending and the grand reveal that comes soon before it. The locations are good but the camerawork isn’t and the acting is a disgrace. Perhaps I can forgive Kurt Thomas, as he wasn’t an actor, but nobody else. And why does he stop and turn around every two steps when being chased, even halfway up a rope that’s on fire? That got old quicker than Norton’s embarrassing ponytail. So yeah, it’s almost as awful as you’ve read.