Thursday 25 February 2016

Gymkata (1985)

Director: Robert Clouse
Stars: Kurt Thomas, Tetchie Agbayani, Richard Norton and Edward Bell
Ah yes, gymnastics action! We start with a very ominous score, string heavy and reminiscent at points of the Jaws theme, but once we get more than just names, we get Kurt Thomas doing a routine on the high bar intercut with shots of horses running. There are nine of the latter, carrying Richard Norton and a cool bunch of ninjas in pursuit of one man on foot. We’ll find out later that this is Col Cabot, who is taking part in the Game, a cross between an endurance test, an obstacle course and a hunt. Any outsider who enters the imaginary country of Parmistan must attempt the Game. If they fail, they die. If they prove successful (and nobody has in 900 years), they get not only to live but for the Khan of Parmistan to grant them one wish. That ought to mean that Parmistan is closed down tighter than North Korea, but somehow we’re to believe that the Khan’s right hand man, the warrior who shoots Col Cabot, is Australian. Oh, and he’s in league with the Russians. Consistency really isn’t this film’s strong suit.

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.
So when Jonathan Cabot, the gymnast that this gymnast plays, is recruited into the Special Intelligence Agency to enter Parmistan, play the Game, win it and then, for his wish, ask for the country to install an early warning satellite monitoring station just in case the Commies let their nuclear birds loose, we’re a little confused. This kid doesn’t look old enough to drink, he has precisely zero training as an agent and the US wants him to travel to the Hindu Kush to do something that nobody’s managed to do for twice as long as his country has even existed. Yeah, we can buy into that, right? Well, no, even when he finds out that his father was an SIA agent who tried the exact same thing but failed. Yes, Col Cabot was Jonathan Cabot’s dad, so the magical power of movie revenge will apparently ensure his son’s success. I haven’t read Dan Tyler Moore’s 1957 novel, The Terrible Game, on which Charles Robert Carner based his script, but it surely can’t be as ridiculous as this. And we’re only ten minutes in.

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. Whose 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.
Anyway, training is completed and off go Cabot and Princess Rubali to Parmistan, via a salt mine on the Caspian Sea to be supplied with cool gadgets because firearms aren’t allowed within Parmistan. If you’re to cheat, you might as well obey the rules while you do so, right? And these guys hunt human beings for sport but they don’t like guns? Weird. Fortunately, there’s a great deal to keep us occupied in the town of Karabal. There’s Col John Mackle, a sort of low budget M, who dishes out low budget gadgets. There are a host of traitors in their midst who promptly kill off all the good guys and kidnap Princess Rubali. There’s a terrorist training centre, led by a man with the worst movie accent I’ve ever heard; he looks like a midget Christopher Lee but he sounds like Tommy Wiseau. There’s a big dude with a big scar across his face and a bigger axe in his hands, who thinks chopping a fire extinguisher is a bright idea. There’s even a chase through the streets of whatever Yugoslavian city is substituting for Karabal, with only one car.

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!
Thus far, this has been relentlessly generic stuff, the only original element being the gymnastics, which is the most ridiculous of all. There’s generic martial arts training, generic gunplay and generic cold war spy twists perpetrated by generic cold war spies in raincoats, but there’s nothing that really rips off anything in particular. That’s about to change. Now, I’ve seen worse than this, but it’s threadbare, strung together and rendered laughable by the dynamic score, which would be great if everything else could live up to it. Once we get to Parmistan, we start in on the overt ripping off of films that we know. It’s about to turn into Enter the Dragon, a rather more successful feature directed by Robert Clouse. Then it’ll turn back to The Most Dangerous Game, which it hinted at early on. Finally it’ll turn into something rather akin to Bedlam crossed with Westworld, where everyone in an entire town is trying to kill Cabot but they all happen to be completely insane. How did this get pitched to MGM and why did they greenlight it?

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.
Contrary to popular opinion, there are positive aspects to this film. I liked the Yugoslavian locations, even if I didn’t like the constant depiction of the locals as inbred halfwits without teeth. Some of what we see in the Village of the Damned is neatly freaky, including a madman who has a face built onto the back of his head so that he can masquerade as a statue and attack when you turn your back. There’s a brief glimpse of a local sport in which ninjas on horseback try to enclose each other in nets. The fights aren’t bad at all and this is an action movie with plenty of action. But the martial arts side is clearly set up to be Enter the Dragon, with Kurt Thomas as Bruce Lee and Richard Norton as Bolo Yeung. Neither has a chance. Norton was responsible for the fight choreography, which is better than his acting, but this was early on for him; he’d fought Chuck Norris in The Octagon and played one of the title characters in Force: Five, but Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Cynthia Rothrock were all firmly in his future.

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.

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