I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt that the one thing missing from gymnastic events at the Olympics was violence. What’s the point in having all that upper-body strength if you’re not going to use it to punch people? And when it comes to martial arts, sure, it’s fun to watch guys fight — but if there aren’t pommel horses involved, I’M NOT INTERESTED.
Recognizing that there were millions of people just like me, the dream-makers in Hollywood created “Gymkata,” a movie that combines the grace and discipline of gymnastics with the hitting and kicking of martial arts. It is undoubtedly the finest film ever made about gymnasts who fight in Middle Eastern death tournaments in order to advance American interests, not counting “Howard’s End.”
The film stars Kurt Thomas, a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team who, being a gymnast and not an actor, was the obvious choice when producers went looking for a gymnast who could not act. Standing 5’5″ and wearing a feathery near-mullet, Thomas cuts quite a dashing figure in “Gymkata,” where he plays an Olympic gymnast named Jonathan Cabot who is recruited by the CIA (or something) to help beat the Russkies in the Cold War.
It seems there is an isolated country called Parmistan (which you will think of as Parmesan every time it is mentioned), located between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the U.S. wants to install a satellite station. But the Soviets want the land, too, and the only way for anyone to get it is to participate in a weird contest known as The Game, in which the winner is granted one request by the khan of Parmistan. For reasons not explained or even alluded to, Cabot is deemed America’s greatest hope at winning The Game. All he needs is some martial-arts training, which he receives in a brief montage that is heavy on showing him walk up a flight of stairs on his hands and light on coherence. In one shot, a member of his training team is holding a falcon for no reason whatsoever.
You have to wonder why the CIA didn’t just find someone who already knew martial arts, but I guess that person probably wouldn’t know gymnastics. But how will gymnastic ability be useful in The Game? Surely there are not horizontal bars or pommel horses involved in whatever The Game is. Because if there were, I mean, that would be really stupid. They wouldn’t make The Game involve gymnastic equipment just because the star of the film is a gymnast, right? RIGHT?
Overseeing Cabot’s training is Rubali (Tetchi Agbayani), who is the princess of Parmistan, which seems like a conflict of interest, but whatever. For no discernible reason, Rubali does not talk for the first several days she and Cabot are together. This annoys Cabot, making him the first man in history to be irritated by a woman not speaking. (KA-ZOING!) Then, in a random turn of events, Rubali and Cabot become lovers.
At last they head to Parmistan, with a stopover in Turkey to gather supplies for the trek. The only way to get into Parmistan is to ride a pack mule and then float on a raft down a river, so I reckon Parmistan’s tourism industry is not exactly thriving. (And what do you do with the pack mule when you get on the raft? Just leave it there for when you come back?) While in Turkey, Rubali gets kidnapped, resulting in a boring action sequence where Cabot runs around the city to rescue her, gets chased by bad guys, gets shot at a lot, then beats up the bad guys thanks to a narrow alleyway that has a horizontal bar affixed between its walls JUST LIKE THEY USE IN GYMNASTICS!! Cabot grabs hold of it and swings around like gymnasts do, and the bad guys very helpfully stand there and let him kick them in the face. Somehow this helps him rescue Rubali.
FINALLY they actually get to Parmistan and meet the colorful villagers, and by “colorful” I mean they are grim-faced, snaggletoothed illiterates who wear babushkas and eat goats. The competitors for The Game, one from each nation of the world, are celebrated at a big banquet hosted by Rubali’s father, the Khan (Buck Kartalian). A guy named Thorg (Bob Schott) shows up, and Cabot excitedly says, “I’ve admired you since Munich!,” which implies he’s an Olympic athlete of some kind, but that’s all the movie tells us. Overall, the movie seems to think it doesn’t need to explain anything to us. Maybe the movie thinks we already read the syllabus.
So what is The Game? It’s like a combination of an obstacle course and the Ironman Triathlon. You run around, you climb over things, you swing across a ravine, and there are Khan-approved ninjas stationed all along the way to ensure no one gets lost or takes a shortcut. These ninjas are very helpful in that regard, less helpful in the fact that they are also allowed to shoot you with arrows if they want to. Zamir (Richard Norton), a cocky Parmistani warrior to whom Rubali is unwillingly betrothed, recognizes Cabot as his competition both romantically and The Game-wise, and encourages the ninjas to target him specifically. This is blatantly unfair, as is Rubali’s sleeping with Cabot and being engaged to another participant. Frankly, I’m disappointed that Parmistan’s The Game commissioner allowed this kind of nonsense.
The Game’s course leads Cabot into a village where Parmistan puts all of its criminally insane people, leaving them to fend for themselves. There aren’t any bars or walls around this village, so I guess the crazies are just on the honor system not to leave town. The differences between these people and the regular Parmistani citizens are not readily apparent until one of the crazies slices off his own hand for no reason whatsoever. They all harass Cabot like zombies in a George Romero film, but he fends them off with the help of — yes! — a pommel horse in the middle of the village square. You don’t need to ask why there’s a pommel horse in the middle of the village square. The answer has already been given several times in this column: for no reason whatsoever.
But wait! I forgot the surprise twist! Cabot’s father participated in The Game some time ago and died during it — but then Cabot Jr. finds him hiding among the corps of ninjas! Dad is alive after all! There is a joyous father-and-son reunion, whereupon Dad is shot with an arrow and killed. Except he’s STILL not dead, making him literally the only person in the entire film to be shot with an arrow and not die instantly. Dad is apparently unkillable. You’d think the CIA would try to harness THAT power in its fight against the Soviets.
“Gymkata” (a word that is never uttered in the movie, by the way) might have been the kind of film whose badness made it entertaining were it not for its long, long stretches where there’s no dialogue and all that’s happening is Cabot running around. He’s not a very interesting person even when he’s speaking, let alone when he’s silent and scampering like a bunny through the forests of Parmistan. This is tedium at its most tedious, especially because we know he’s not going to die. Ninety minutes of Kurt Thomas performing gymnastics would have been more entertaining. At least then there’d be a chance he’d fall and hurt himself.