"I take orders from the Octoboss."


MAY 3, 1985

GYMKATA is another Summer of 1985 release with a Cold War context. On screen, it involves a mission with the ultimate goal of installing an American satellite monitoring station. Behind the scenes, it stars a gymnast who was favored to win gold at the Olympics in Moscow until the U.S. team boycotted.

I reviewed GYMKATA for The Ain’t It Cool News in 2007 when it first came out on DVD, so you can read that for more details. I have some pretty good lines in there, for example

“this movie and Osama bin Laden are both unintended consequences of [the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan]. And I can say objectively that the better of the two is GYMKATA. GYMKATA is better than Osama bin Laden.”

But it’s a pretty damn 1985 movie so I decided to revisit it for this series. It stars Kurt Thomas, five-time NCAA champion and International Gymnastics Hall of Famer who won six medals at the 1979 World Championship before the aforementioned protest of the 1980 Summer Games. He plays Jonathan Cabot, also a gymnast of some kind. We see him on the parallel bars, and then all the sudden some suit from the Special Intelligence Agency is briefing him for a top secret mission to the secluded country of Parmistan. His dad (Eric Lawson, who played a sheriff in TALL TALE, RUMPELSTILTSKIN, WHEN TIME EXPIRES and KING COBRA) was an agent who disappeared there competing in “The Game,” a thing they apparently do frequently where foreigners try to run an obstacle course while locals on horses with helmets over ninja masks shoot arrows at them. If somebody actually survived the country would offer them any favor they want. Help you move, give you notes on your screenplay, anything.

So all Jonathan has to do, they explain, is simply enter this competition in which everyone who enters is horribly murdered, somehow avoid being horribly murdered, and then instead of getting anything out of it, blow his winnings on a request for permission to install a station for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the theoretical nuclear-missile-blocking shield proposed by the Reagan administration. No problem!

I know we all have different feelings about enjoying or making fun of “bad movies.” So I have to be upfront that I don’t consider this a good movie, and I know much of what I enjoy about it was not meant to be laughed at. But I enjoy GYMKATA because it’s somewhere near that sweet spot of a laughably silly idea treated so seriously that it’s kind of charming, overlapping with types of movies I enjoy (martial arts, training for a covert mission, entering a deadly competition).

Admittedly it’s not a great rendition of those things. The backwards culture of Parmistan, with its low rent robes, banners and castles, is not very fun or visually appealing, which makes the never thrilling parts of this type of story, such as the “wined and dined before the competition starts” part, even more dull than usual. Therefore, much of what makes it entertaining is the goofy shit: The King (Buck Kartalian, Julius from PLANET OF THE APES) who looks like Mel Brooks dressed as Mark Twain in a fur hat. The model he shows of the terrain for the competition, which looks like a child’s paper mache diorama for a school project. This part:


The actual “The Game” parts aren’t great either. The obstacles don’t get more complicated than climbing a rope. And Jonathan seems so unqualified sometimes – when the race starts he runs maybe 20 feet and then immediately trips! Who is he, Ben Quadinaros?

But there’s lots of fun mayhem. When the guys on horses start chasing, somebody gets runs over, and because the camera doesn’t emphasize it at all I genuinely suspect it was an accident. I counted two dummy drops and seven funny screams as people were knocked off of cliffs and ledges and stuff. It seems like the sound department didn’t want to use the Wilhelm Scream but wanted something equally absurd each time.

And of course it’s fun to watch a gymnast in a fight scene. There are two particularly absurd moments:

1. When he runs into an alley and there just happens to be a bar he can jump up and spin on, and every attacker happens to run right to where he can kick them

2. When he gets cornered in a town square where there happens to be what can only be described as a stone pommel horse. So he spins around it and kicks all the guys who come after him.

Gymnastics is always a part of martial arts cinema. Thomas never trained in martial arts, but guys like Scott Adkins and Jean-Claude Van Damme trained in gymnastics. And the truth is I’ve always appreciated gratuitous flips and somersaults in fights, so I enjoy these fights being specifically designed around them. There’s also a very weird comedy bit where he jokes around with his asset/girlfriend Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani, THE EMERALD FOREST, BRUCE LEE’S DRAGONS FIGHT BACK, DISORDERLIES) by repeatedly doing flips and alternating which way he lands facing so he can perform both sides of a conversation. Would’ve liked to see Smeagol try that.

Adding kicks to acrobatics makes for better fights than your usual non-martial-artist actor could do, and it’s a funny contrast to his not-particularly-macho presence and regular guy Adidas pants and mullet.

And there’s a pretty legit supporting cast. Conan Lee (NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN, TIGER ON BEAT, FIRST STRIKE) is one of the other competitors, Tadashi Yamashita (AMERICAN NINJA, CAGE II) trains Jonathan in blindfolded sword fighting, Sonny Barnes (BLACK BELT JONES, TRUCK TURNER) is also a trainer. Most importantly, frequent Cynthia Rothrock co-star and FURY ROAD Prime Imperator/fight coordinator Richard Norton is both fight choreographer and lead villain Zamir.

Zamir leads the Parmistan hunts and is trying to take over the kingdom. He has a padawan braid and a dangly earring, expects to marry Princess Rubali, often goes shirtless, and is prone to random dagger spinning and throwing demonstrations. There’s one part where he shows a sense of honor: he has one of the ninjas killed for not following the rules. But witnessing later cheating Jonathan yells, “They broke the rules! Kill ‘em!” but he’s ignored and whines “Damn it!” to himself.

It’s also distinct from other movies of its type (if there is such a thing) because of the weirdness of the Village of the Crazies section. Being accosted by giggling insane people – fine, whatever. But the guy turning around and revealing a second face on the back of his head is one of those unpredictable moments of inexplicability you treasure in a b-movie. And I love when the guy in the religious looking white robe gestures to him, he stupidly walks toward the guy like “Who, me?” and then the guy turns to walk away and we see that there’s no back on the robe and he’s bare-ass naked.

Otherwise the premise and structure – guy recruited and trained for mission to mysterious island to hang out with strange ruler and compete in deadly games with ulterior motives and personal side mission – are pretty much ENTER THE DRAGON, and it’s the same director, Robert Clouse. Though Clouse also directed DARKER THAN AMBER and THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR, his life became defined by ENTER THE DRAGON. It not only led to a career associated with Lee (bastardizing his unfinished footage into GAME OF DEATH, writing a biography of him) but of trying to create more showcases for exciting new (or new to the West) talents: Jim Kelly in BLACK BELT JONES, Jackie Chan in THE BIG BRAWL, Cynthia Rothrock in CHINA O’BRIEN I and II, Bolo Yeung in IRONHEART.

In that context it’s even funnier to see Kurt Thomas, whose dialogue seems intentionally minimized even though he speaks English, get his own action vehicle. ENTER THE DRAGON producer Fred Weintraub saw him in a commercial and wanted him to star in a movie. He’s a very talented athlete, but an odd fit with those other names when it comes to screen presence. For his troubles the poor guy got nominated for a stupid fucking Razzie award for “Worst New Star.” He was up against “The new computerized Godzilla in GODZILLA 1985,” whatever the hell that means, and lost to Brigitte Nielsen for RED SONJA and ROCKY IV, both of which she’s good in. The insult didn’t stop Thomas from taking another gymnast role in a 1988 TV movie called CIRCUS, where he got to work with Tony Jay and pre-CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN Billy Bob Thornton.

He still owns and operates a training gym in Texas and hosts an annual international gymnastics invitational. He does not have a mullet. But he seems to have a sense of humor about the movie and like talking about it. The Bristol Bad Film Club did a good interview with him where he explained the stone pommel horse:

“We tried doing it without pommels and it just killed my wrists! So, we then had to go get some actual pommels to get it done.” I’m glad they did, since it’s one of the movie’s most wonderful bits of absurdity. He also claims the people from the Village of the Crazies, other than the ones he fights, “were actually crazy people from a local insane asylum in Yugoslavia. We provided them with alcohol and a buffet for their time!”

The script was by Charles Robert Carner (BLIND FURY, director of the 1997 TV remake of VANISHING POINT starring Viggo Mortensen and Jason Priestley), adapted from the novel The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore.

Dan Tyler Moore was born in 1908, the son of Theodore Roosevelt’s military aide and sparring partner. In fact the president was his godfather, and even offered to let his mother deliver him at the White House. He had a degree in physics from Yale. He drafted Ohio’s securities act and ran Cleveland’s regional SEC and Civil Defense offices. During World War II he joined the Office of Strategic Services working as the Chief of counter-intelligence in Cairo, where he stopped an assassination attempt on the King of Greece. After the war he worked for a hotel company in Istanbul, founded an import-export business with his friend Eliot Ness and became a public speaker, columnist and author. His novel Illegal Entry was made into a 1949 film noir starring Howard Duff.

But his biography on Wikipedia just says this:

Dan Tyler Moore is an American author best known for writing The Terrible Game, which was the basis for the film Gymkata.

I have not read that 1956 book, but it sounds like the same premise: a young man is trained and sent to a medieval country to take part in a competition called the Game of Ott where he has to perform various feats while people try to kill him. In the book the goal was to install an “Atomic Howitzer” to attack Russian supply shipments, so the SDI thing made sense as a modern equivalent.

The movie’s happy ending is a triumphant title card:

“In 1985 The First Early Warning Earth Station Was Placed In Parmistan For The U.S. Star Wars Defense Program”

“Early Warning Earth Station” actually sounds like the radar system the Canadian and U.S. governments built in the ‘50s to detect any Soviet missile launch, but “Star Wars Defense Program” would seem to be the derisive nickname for Reagan’s program to develop lasers or other methods to intercept oncoming missiles. While such a system would be nice to have, it seems to have been completely impractical (like it could easily be foiled by sending decoys along with the real missiles). A scientist was fired and became a whistleblower because he criticized it as a wasteful program. Support for it collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, and it was officially cancelled during the Clinton administration.

So Jonathan Cabot never should’ve trusted those motherfuckers. Should’ve asked for a stone pommel horse or something. But at least he found his dad, who appears to die in the opening scene, is found alive on the island, is immediately shot with an arrow and treated as dead, but shows up alive again. Those Cabots are survivors, and so is GYMKATA. I’m sure I’ll still get a kick out of it if I watch it in another 13 years.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 at 12:33 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Gymkata”

  1. One of the best movies of all time…

    When someone asks what is the best, not favorite, action movie is, the answer is GYMKATA…

    When someone asks what is the best, not favorite, horror movie is, the answer is GYMKATA…

    When someone asks what is the best, not favorite, movie is, the answer is GYMKATA…

  2. david j. moore

    May 19th, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    Another personal favorite. My dad taped this off of the Z channel, and it was one of about 10 movies I watched over and over with an obsessiveness that only a kid could have. Those growing up years were great: watching ENTER THE DRAGON, GYMKATA, REMO WILLIAMS, and RAMBO II more times than I could possibly count.

  3. I haven’t seen GYMKATA in over 30 years (can’t pretend to have seen it in a theater in 1985, though), but this review echoes much of what I think about it with my rose-colored hindsight — a lot of fun, a lot of chaff.

    Props for the (at least) two subtler Star Wars references to go along with the whole SDI thing. As I recall — and having only been a younger teen, a long time ago, I may not recall correctly — not too many of us expected much from that “program.” Our expectations were not disappointed.

    A friend and I liked to write short stories together back then. This goofy ass movie half-inspired one of our greatest (worst?) ripoffs, Breakata, which, as one would expect, featured a breakdancer who was recruited to become a spy. The remaining inspiration, of course, came from Breakin’, the movie series that managed to have two entries released in the same year. I’d be lying if I claimed our lead characters WEREN’T named Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp.

    I’d like to say I’m not proud of any of this, and that I’ve grown since then…..but I’m sharing this tangential story for some reason. I guess the silver lining may be that I’m laughing at my own sorry white ass as I do it.

  4. One of the cable channels (probably Turner since it’s a MGM release) LOVED showing Gymkata at 3am on Sunday throughout the ’90s. I saw that “Village of the Crazies” part while really fucking drunk MANY times, and would always be convinced the next morning I half imagined/hallucinated it, even after the eighth time I saw it.

  5. Back when I lived in Brooklyn, I used to volunteer at this microcinema. I’d often take the Saturday midnight shift, partly because most other volunteers didn’t want to do it, partly because I was unemployed and broke and usually didn’t have anything better to do so at least I’d get to watch some movies (albeit from the projection booth). On the not-infrequent occasion that something went wrong with the thing that was scheduled to play that time (file got messed up, programmer forgot to drop it off, etc), this movie was my go-to replacement. Every time I went out in front of the audience to explain what was up, I was always pleasantly surprised at the generally enthusiastic reception I’d get when I got to the “…we’re happy to refund your admission price if you don’t want to stick around, but for those of you who do, we will be screening GYMKATA instead” part of my spiel.

  6. Johnny Utah: I would watch BREAKATA 50 times.

  7. Gymkata is on a shortlist of movies that I fear that I can never watch due to its ubiquitous notoriety. It’s a bad movie that I enjoy reading/hearing about so much that actually watching the movie would diminish said enjoyment.

    Johnny Utah: a concept like Breakata doesn’t seem too far-fetched for the ’80s. Like gymnastics, there’s a shared physicality to both breakdancing and martial arts. The two disciplines are pillars of hip hop culture for that reason. The real conundrum would be whether Breakata followed the story of a martial artist learning to breakdance or was the story of a breakdancer who enters a contest in a foreign land.

  8. Man, this movie…

  9. Johnny Utah – That’s so funny, I’ve had an idea in my head for a while of a Cold War breakdancer-becomes-a-spy thing. I was thinking kind of like the plot of xXx but in the ’80s with a young breakdancer hero, Ivan-Drago-of-breakdancing villain, hip hop spy devices (spraypaint can that cuts through walls), etc. I imagine it as the spy novel that in an alternate universe Cannon bought the rights to and reworked into BREAKIN’ 3. But I didn’t know they would be sued by the makers of BREAKATA.

  10. Another way to do it would be to make that STEP UP/FAST & FURIOUS crossover we’ve all been pining for. Dom and family need to infiltrate an elite gang of automotive assassins who are also breakdancers. Only Dom has a breakdancing background from his old crew, the Street Sharks, so he can’t handle it alone, so he calls up Moose, with whom he has a previously undocumented brotherhood type relationship and convinces him to recruit the Step Uppers to teach the Fast & Furiousers how to pop and lock. At first the two crews don’t respect each other but then they realize that driving is a form of dancing and vice versa so they combine their powers, leading to an epic finale featuring multiple dance-offs conducted on top of multiple moving vehicles. STEP UP 2 THE FURIOUS: BORN FROM A BOOMBOX A QUARTER MILE AT A TIME will be the feel-good hit of the apocalypse.

  11. As I recall, the gymnast in BORN TO FIGHT uses the rim of a large pot for his impromptu pommel horse fight. That is way better, but BORN TO FIGHT is in any case way better.

    I also recall that GYMKATA was mentioned in Vern’s review of NEVER TO YOUNG TO DIE – well, actually I just reread Vern’s review to be sure – which I still haven’t seen, despite the promise of seeing Gene Simmons die some more. How is the gymnastics in that?


  13. Well Mr. M, it would appear you have won the Internet today…

  14. There was a time when the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” seemed impossible. I wasn’t sure combining the disparate movies into THE AVENGERS would even make sense, but that kind of crossover seems minor and quaint now. So I won’t give up on this dream. I believe in STEP UP 2 THE FURIOUS.

  15. Obviously, this would be a very personal mission for the Step Uppers because the #2 bad guy is Channing Tatum. At first, they just want revenge on him for betraying the code of BFAB and turning the world against all breakdancers following a flash mob/terrorist attack, but Dom convinces them that you never turn your back on family and he is brought back into the fold by the end of the movie.

    The #1 bad guy? John Travolta, whose vicious disco moves put Mr. Nobody in the hospital just in time to motivate the two teams for the grand finale.

    Also Tony Jaa’s character turns out to be alive so he and Moose can have an epic one-take Michael Jackson-off in a crowded marketplace and they become dance brothers.

  16. Also, Dom needs an arc, so I think the deal is that he quit the Street Sharks after a tragic headspin accident left his previously unmentioned best friend paralyzed. He will help
    mentor the Fast & Furiousers in Breakata but he has vowed to never dance again. But then during the climax the entire rest of the crew has been incapacitated and Travolta is about to take over the world or whatever and Dom has no choice but to (wait for it) step up. Waiting the entire movie for Dom to bust out his moves will make it all the more satisfying in my opinion. The musical accompaniment will be a trap remix of “I Won’t Dance” by Frank Sinatra featuring Gucci Mane.

    Also also the STEP UP guy who always does the robot will be revealed to be an actual robot when he emerges from a flaming car wreck as a metal exoskeleton tutting along to a Wiz Khalifa song.

  17. I am very appreciative for the Summer of 1985 series of reviews. 1985 is probably my favorite year for movies, and these movie review event series are always a real treat, especially the recurring ones. They are a touchstone in my life, and having a touchstone is really important for all of us right now. And I’ve been skipping around, so I didn’t even read the Rambo one yet! (Gotcha! a few days ago, then Brewster’s Millions and Gymkata today)

    I wish a streaming service would commission an event series of “Vern Presents…” originals, starting with The Beverly Hills Have Eyes and then Step Up 2 The Furious. It’d be like Black Mirror with genre films.

  18. Jesus Christ, universe. Stop fucking with us.

    R.I.P. Kurt Fucking Thomas.

  19. All of you will be relieved to know that after some eight hours of painstaking research by yours truly, Dan Tyler Moore Jr’s wikipedia page is no longer just a single sentence crediting him with inspiring “Gymkata.” I’d like to thank Vern for bringing this neglected subject to my attention.


  20. And they say there are no heroes left.

  21. That’s great! I’m glad the page sucked before, though, because it was a thrill to go down the rabbit hole of research on that.

  22. I should say, I first became a wikipedia editor so I could add a “themes and motifs” section to Steven Seagal’s page and cite Seagalogy, which I’m happy to say remains there to this day. But it’s become something of a passion since then. Whenever everything feels terrible and hopeless, I try and add something useful to wikipedia, it’s one of the few things I can do which objectively and directly makes the world a little better. Just one more way you’ve inspired me to strive for excellence, Vern!

  23. One time I got paid to make an author I knew’s Wikipedia page. I more than earned that money. I was shocked by how difficult and frustrating the vetting process was and cannot imagine doing it for money ever again, let alone for fun. I always imagine the passive-aggressive battles going on behind the scenes of every article. Whenever there is a particularly tortured bit of ass-covering wording, I like to picture the back-and-forth between two extremely convinced-of-their-own-rightness pedants who won’t back down until the proper adverb is used. Has that been your experience or did I just attract some particularly hardassed mods?

  24. Mr. M — the vetting process is indeed pretty effortful, but that’s what keeps the teenagers out and keeps most of the dipshits with hi-larious takes from vandalizing articles. I enjoy doing research, so it wasn’t too onerous for me. I stick mostly to editing smaller and more obscure topics (the Dan Tyler Moores, Sr and Jr, of the world), which is where you can do the most good anyway, and at least in those outer reaches I have found people to be almost entirely helpful and collaborative. I imagine things are different on more mainstream topics, where you’ve got a lot more people with strong opinions weighing in and most of the relevant information is already present.

    The biggest downside to wikipedia is that, like much of the internet, it’s primarily edited by people who look like me and are interested in the things I’m interested in. That means a lot of digital ink gets spilled on articles about Mattel brand action figures, while topics which are more traditionally of interest to women, minorities, and basically every group other than middle-class white males between the ages of 18-38, can get neglected (out of ignorance more than malice, but it works out to the same thing). So if you know someone who fits that description and might be interested in becoming an editor, encourage them to do so! I’d be happy to offer some guidance if it helps!

  25. I know no one who fits that description, particularly myself. I technically have a master’s degree so lord knows I’ve done enough school to know how research works, but I don’t really possess the commitment to make sure I get all that stuff exactly right. I’m a fiction writer. I do enough research to find an inspirational kernel of truth, and after that point I Bob Ross that shit: If I say there’s a fuckin’ tree there, there’s a fuckin’ tree there and reality can get stuffed. I tend to invent whole towns so I won’t have to worry about geography. I’m the last guy you want mucking around on Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>