Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Gymkata
And, then, occasionally, a studio bankrolls a magical unicorn of cheese for reasons that will always remain unclear throughout history, even if all the evidence points to trend-chasing. Gymkata is one the greatest examples of cheese you will find just about anywhere. Produced at the tail end of a gymnastics craze initiated by the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Gymkata should be no more memorable than Vision Quest and American Anthem; films which also rode the wave of Mary Lou Retton and the TV movie Nadia. And, I suppose, the story of the real life Nadia Comăneci. But being one of the last gymnasts through the gate of a waning fascination, Gymkata does the one thing which could vault it to the top of the cheese podium: it added ninjas.
The plot concerns Jonathan Cabot (actual Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas), a gymnast conscripted by a shadowy US intelligence agency after his father disappears in the vaguely Middle Eastern country of Parmistan (or Par-MEE-stan depending on who’s saying it). The country is perfectly situated for a US early warning missile defense system. But in order to open diplomatic relations with the country’s Kahn (yes, that’s how it is spelled), Cabot must play The Game.
As part of ancient tradition, visitors to Parmistan must compete in brutal obstacle course while chased by ninjas on horseback. Now at this point you might be asking why are there ninjas in Parmistan? Gymkata will never offer you an answer no matter how many times you watch it. Winning The Game means the Kahn will grant the champion one wish — like building an early warning system — but no outsider has won the game in over 900 years.
Cabot’s US intelligence liaison, a man named Paley (played by a Bill Bixby/David Birney looking Edward Bell), has put together a crack team to train Cabot in a new form of martial arts mixing the best of gymnastics with the best of karate. And to supervise him in the training of this … oh, let’s call it “gymkata” even if the movie never does … Paley introduces him to the Kahn’s daughter, Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani). They quickly begin a romantic relationship because this a gymnastics/ninja movie from 1985.
The perilous trip to Parmistan will involve pack mule — but not all the way — and white water rafting. So Cabot and Rubali make their way to Karabal (on the Caspian Sea), where a US informant known as “the Stork” is prepared to outfit them for the trek through the Kush to Parmistan. Rubali almost immediately gets kidnapped and in order to rescue her, Cabot uses conveniently placed gymnastics equipment to use his “gymkata.”
And if the presence of a horizontal bars and pommel horses feel incredibly convenient, that’s part of the charm. Gymkata has no time to be precious about Cabot’s need for certain recognizable artifacts of a gymnastics performance. It just commits to their presence like it commits to its utterly silly premise: with full-tilt conviction. Directed by Enter The Dragon‘s Robert Clouse, it is easy to see why an audience would look at this and howl with laughter. In fact, I find this movie is a good salve for a bad day. But within the obvious script mistakes, or half-hearted attempts to explain why Rubali is said to be Indonesia, is a surprisingly warm gooey center which comes from Clouse’s commitment to the plot.
The movie only increases in its ridiculousness when Cabot and Rubali finally arrive in Parmistan, where ninjas great them as enemies and the Kahn (Buck Kartalian) greets Cabot as a Champion alongside competitors for the one wish, like Gomez (John Berrett), a Soviet dude who is never named, and the mighty Thorg (Bob Schott); a so-called “superman” Cabot has admired since the 1976 Munich games. Rubali, for her part, is to be wed to the Kahn’s chief advisor Zamir (Australian action great Richard Norton). Did I also mention this whole scene looks like it was lifted straight out of a sword-and-sandals epic like Deathstalker?
The Game requires running through cornfields, rope climbing, evading other contestants and surviving a so-called “village of the damned” where Parmistan keeps its “crazies.” I know I’ve offered a lot more plot this week than I normally do, but that was only to get you here, so you understand the motivations of the characters as they finally play The Game. The movie won’t really tell you that because once The Game starts, Gymkata goes into crazy-bananas-ville where the controlled, confident direction Clouse displayed in Enter the Dragon gets exchanged for some of the cheesiest fight scenes and slow motion MGM every paid to see realized.
The performances here are perfunctory as they only need to get you to the action. Thomas, for instance, is no actor. He completely fails to show concern for Rubali when she’s kidnapped or surprise when they discover the Stork was working for Zamir all along. Norton would eventually learn his instrument working with Cynthia Rothrock and Clouse, oddly enough, in Hong Kong. Agbayani, who went on to a long film and TV career in her native Philippines, might be the best actor in the bunch if not for Kartalian’s pleasant, Mel Brooks-like Kahn and Berrett’s almost convincing line-reading of “yeah” when Cabot asks him a question during a dinner scene.
Gymkata is a giddy treat, it combines all the wackiness of a ninja movie with the earnestness of a gymnastics movie. It’s its own special form of martial arts film which could never be attempted again by anyone. I mean, who would be crazy enough to mash these disciplines together again? Even Evgenia Medvedeva, known for mixing ice skating and Sailor Moon, would think twice about necromancing the art of gymkata. But, thankfully, it stands as a testament to the dedication of its cast and crew, eventually becoming one of the great cult classics and earning a special DVD release in 2007 thanks to Amazon costumers telling Warner Bros. Home Entertainment that they needed this great example of cheese in their home video collections.
Gymkata is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It is also available on DVD.