5 Reasons 'Gymkata' Is The Funniest Movie of the 80s
In the 80s, your special skill would save the day no matter how ridiculous it was, and skills don't come more ridiculous than male gymnastics. We only claimed that was a thing so we had an excuse to be there when girls learned to bend like that. But there was a disastrous leak of movie-logic into reality, when one man's athletic ability not only saved but caused a movie: GYMKATA! It's billed as "The skill of gymnastics, the Kill of Karate!" That implies that karate is unskilled, which is a pretty ballsy claim for a professional male frolicker.
Below, the five moments that make Gymkata worth seeing despite, and often because of, all of those ridiculous factors ...
Kurt Thomas was a three-time World Champion Gymnast and a sure bet for Olympic gold in 1980, but missed out because the U.S. boycotted the games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Getting this movie instead was like replacing a winning lottery ticket with an eviction notice from dignity.
Every 80s action movie started off by showing the audience that their hero is man of action, a man of danger, but most of all a man. Gymkata takes that a bit ... literally.
Maybe you should just leave now. It only triple-forward-flips downhill from here.
Now, we admit Kurt Thomas was a phenomenal athlete, but he was a terrible 'everything else.' The problem being that becoming an Olympian means absolute dedication, which means no time to focus on anything else, like "how to act" or "how to appear more threatening than a average girl scout".
Kurt Thomas plays a character named John Cabot, making him the first action hero with a less manly name than the actor. The scriptwriter must have taken one look at Kurt and decided he wasn't badass enough for the name. K-names require broad chests, Teutonic buzz-cuts and the ability to punch through tanks. Thomas's five foot five frame and fabulous flexibility would earn him a two-syllable name ending in "i" and a giggle at best.
The US needs a base for their new satellite nuclear-weapon tracking system in the tiny, presumably cheese-based country of Parmistan. Apparently because the US doesn't know how satellites work: Parmistan is about four miles across -- if your satellite needs a base there, you should probably just scrap the whole project, because it's going to hit a telephone pole before completing its first orbit anyway. Parmistan also has the distinction of being the only country where ninja are more naturally occurring than teeth. Whether this speaks ill of the peasants dental hygiene (it does,) or well of their Ninja Training Institute (it does not,) the end result is an impassive ninja posted at every street corner, often doing little more than holding up flags with directions on them. Parmistan was suffering from two problems: A nationwide lumber deficit and a ludicrous ninja surplus; they just let one problem solve the other.
This is not how he pictured his life after Ninja school.
Gymkata occupies a unique period in American history, during that fateful time when we had not yet discovered the middle ground between "Massive invasion of a foreign country" and "buying a lone gymnast a plane ticket." Torn with indecision, we flipped a coin and went with gymnast. It's a stupid plan, even by 80s' action movie standards, where the unspoken rule is that we can't officially intervene militarily, but can and absolutely will send the human embodiment of the American Spirit over there instead, to break necks with his legs, noses with his fists, and hearts with his dreamboat eyes.
In this case, Cabot was the perfect man for the job, because the only way to enter Parmistan is to win "The Game" -- an assault course built out of ninjas and crazy people. With his absolute mastery of gymnastics and questionable association with karate, Cabot is the perfect choice. And he's got personal stakes, too: The Game has already killed his father, who was a real secret agent and who probably only accepted the obvious suicide mission because he was overcome with disappointment in his male gymnast son.
Realizing that "competitive gymnastics" might not fully prepare Cabot for enacting a brutal coup in a hostile nation, the Special (as in "Olympics") Intelligence Agency sequesters him for months of rigorous training. Which, being the 80s, is accomplished through the worst training montage ever filmed. Yes, we're even including that time Mr. T lost a fight to a rope. They imbue Cabot with the greatest skills and training from both the East and the West ... which in the '80s meant hiring Old Japanese Man and Angry Black Guy.
The old man's entire contribution to this training is forcing Cabot to walk up stairs on his hands. If you've ever wondered whether or not camera angles can hate you, well, wonder no more:
This isn't one frame out of context. This exact scene happens over and over again. The shot lovingly lingers on Kurt's crotch so long that most of the audience is pregnant by the end of it. The breakdown of his training time is roughly 30% watching other people do karate, 70 percent showing those people what his balls look like upside down.
This really all speaks to the movie's fundamentally flawed premise: It operates under the idea that the only way karate could be more badass is if you mixed it with gymnastics. And there was nothing more badass than karate in the 80s. If you mixed '80s-era karate with nuclear warheads, that would still be the less-lethal version because it was diluting karate. But still they felt the need to downplay the karate and upsell the twirling here: Kurt uses triple backflips in tasks most people wouldn't need their wrists for. An example: Here's Cabot "seducing" the movie's love interest, princess Rubali.
Keep in mind that at this point in the movie, she hasn't said word one to Cabot, but has instead made attempt on his life three. Yet she is completely seduced through squeaky-voiced sarcastic backflip improvisational theatre. Thus is the sheer, animal sex appeal of male gymnastics, says Gymkata (and no one else. Ever.)
Perhaps worst of all though, is the wasted potential. His ridiculous flip up there is called the "Thomas Salto", not because Thomas invented it, but because he's the first person to survive performing it on the international stage. It's still considered three-quarters impossible because the human body hasn't evolved gyroscopes and helicopter blades yet. It is a "tucked 1.5 backward salto with 1.5 twist into a roll out," and it's an incredibly impressive feat unless:
a) You pause between each one to passive aggressively whine about how girls ignore you.
b) The idiot cameraman keeps half of your spinning body out of shot every time you do it, so that you end up risking your life twenty three times trying to get the perfect take for nothing.
Cabot and Rubali then fall madly in love through the power of spinning, and immediately have sex ... which presumably involves Kurt gripping her between his thighs and rapidly revolving around.
Before playing The Game, Cabot must trek to Parmistan, which gives the US government plenty of time to show how little they care about his mission. The equipment they issue him is so tragic you'd swear they only trust him with legs because he brought his own. And that's a shame, because Generic Middle Eastern Country #4 is in a really rough neighborhood:
"It's really a complicated political situation and there's no clea- ARROW! YEAGH!"
Eventually Cabot and his lady love arrive in Parmistan where we meet the hostile king, who is revealed to be Princess Rubali's father! And we also see that she's betrothed to the movie's main villain, Zamir! And it's Zamir who apparently killed Cabot's father! And probably also suffocated his puppy!
It's like the movie forgot they already established motivation for their hero (he's single-handedly saving the world by allowing the US to install their satellite base, remember?) and so are just throwing every possible scenario at the audience until one sticks: He's trying to win the girl, while simultaneously rescuing her from the evil villain AND her disapproving father, and also avenging the murder of his own father on his way to beat the obstacle course so he can save the world from the Russians. The only way Gymkata could contain more 80s stereotypes is if Cabot also had to win a dance competition to save the Parmistani rec center from evil developers ... on skateboards.
Eventually, The Game begins, and we soon realize that most of the other countries have sent Jeopardy contestants in track suits to participate in the death-course for the fate of the world.
The contestants are then briefed on the trials they'll face which, as we mentioned earlier, involves a deadly obstacle course - and the biggest of those "obstacles" is a lunatic asylum. Do they have to navigate it? Visit the patients inside so they don't get lonely? Burn it down for insurance money? Who knows? Obstacle=lunatic asylum is all we're told. It is also here that we see Parmistan's main resource, the ninja, being used to their full effect ... as construction materials. Ninja are used as signposts, as furniture, the race starts with two Ninja holding the rope, Flag Ninja are used to mark out the entire course of the game, and not to put too fine a point on it -- but all we're going to say is don't use the toilet in a Parmistani home unless you're comfortable insulting a pajama-clad man holding a bucket.
After all the buildup, the movie burns through the actual obstacle course section like the Human Torch with a packet of sparklers. It mostly consists of nameless mustachioed men dying from arrow wounds, while Zamir chases Cabot through a course not only full of but actually made of ninjas. How this scene manages to not be awesome despite that sentence is something neither science nor religion will ever be able to answer.
The ultimate showdown in Gymkata is so stupid it got its own Cracked article. Cabot is trapped in the middle of the lunatic asylum (which is more of a pleasant little Lunatic Hamlet, actually) and surrounded on all sides. But this is the fight that Cabot's been preparing for his whole life, and considering that they've installed a pommel-horse as the primary feature in their town square, so have the villagers.
The mob is composed entirely of people who have three-meter long pole weapons, thus rendering them completely immune to gymnastery, and yet they opt instead to attack by running face-first into Thomas's feet, which are now a pajama-clad-blender rotating fast enough to deform space-time. It's the first binary error in the history of rampaging hordes. Seriously, you won't find this many unused poking weapons outside of a pickup artist convention -- they've got pole arms, farming tools, tridents and a couple of bizarre iron prodders we'd swear were intended for long-range medieval gynaecology.
But John Cabot shows them all that male gymnasts really can be badass ... just as long as you hire a contractor to build a pommel horse in the fight area, then give them some time to get their momentum going, then politely agree to walk into their spinning feet instead of standing back a few feet and throwing empty beer cans and homophobic slurs.
Gymkata then proceeds to shove what should've been the last hour of movie into three minutes of panicked catch-up. First, Cabot realizes his father is still alive! Then immediately watches him get killed by Zamir (again) before they can even finish introducing themselves. He hunts down the villain, and engages in thirty seconds of fight scene before breaking Zamir's neck between his strong, bendy legs. Then the population of Parmistan suddenly decides to throw off the yoke of oppression as casually as you'd buy a pack of gum.
"Hey, that guy did a flip! Did you see that? DEMOCRACY."
The bad guys are dead, the hero got the girl, and the people are free! And so it is that John Cabot guarantees the destruction of the human race.
Don't you remember? He's not recovering a chemical weapon or preventing a mad terrorist: He's allowing the US to install a nuclear-launch detection grid in the middle east. The only purpose of which is to guarantee complete Mutually Assured Destruction if the Ruskies launch against us. Cabot didn't prevent the nuclear holocaust; his mission was only to ensure there would be absolutely no survivors if it happened.
HAPPY GYMKATA, EVERYBODY!
Luke's cinemasochism extends to the incomparable Dolemite, the unbelievable Resident Evil and much more.