March 24, 2011 by abbyo
I love the 80s for a lot of reasons—the music, for one thing, the clothes for another. But mostly I love it for the movies, particularly because the peak of the Cold War provided Hollywood with plenty of ideas, some good, others…not so much. The resulting movies generally fall into two groups: the science-y super nerd movies like “Real Genius,” and the militant “let’s get those commie bastards” movies like “Red Dawn.” While the science-y movies tended to take a more long-term view on the potential negative effects of building up a nuclear arsenal (go figure), the militant movies took no such view. They were all about defeating the enemy and spreading the gospel of capitalism at any cost. These movies are over-the-top, cartoonish works to begin with; never mind the fact that they don’t age well. In other words, they’re easy pickings for jokes.
Enter this week’s Plan 9 pick: “Gymkata” a movie that combines all the weirdest bits of popular 80s action movies with that desire to kick some soviet ass, and creates an awesomely bad, collapsed soufflé of a movie. “Gymkata” is bad in the way of the best terrible movies. Think “Bloodsport” with the production values of “Troll 2,” and you’ve got some idea of what it’s like. Although it may not be as widely known, it’s absolutely required viewing for any bad movie aficionado.
The story: American gymnast Jonathan Cabot (real-life Olympic Gymnast Kurt Thomas) is recruited by the U.S. Government to take part in a deadly race known as “The Game” held in the obscure (read: imaginary) country of Parmistan. The military wants to use the country as a site for the Star Wars program, and hope to gain the permission of the Parmistanian people by having Cabot win the contest (the prize is that the ruler of Parmistan will grant any single request made by the winner). Apparently other countries have gotten wind of this, and think it’s a great idea, so Cabot will be competing against a set of similarly motivated international representatives, including this guy:
In addition to working through a bunch of dangerous obstacles, the competitors have to travel through “The Village of the Damned,” where the Parmistanians send their criminally insane. It’s a surprisingly highly populated village that includes this charming fellow among their citizenry:
Of course, these are all just your basic B-movie elements. What makes a “Plan 9 Cinema” pick has to go beyond the superficial, and into the realm of the truly, deeply, terrible. And there’s plenty of material that takes it there.
Let’s start with the casting: I kind of get Kurt Thomas as the hero. You want a skilled gymnast, you hire a skilled gymnast. Fine. But then we have Richard Norton, an Australian, playing Zamir, not bothering for one second to sound like he’s from anywhere but Australia. Buck Kartalian plays the Khan of Parmistan like he’s Mel Brooks in “Blazing Saddles.” He just kind of wanders around, looking vaguely amused at the fact that he’s even there at all. His daughter, Cabot’s romantic interest, is Asian—passed off early on as having an Indonesian mother, which still makes no sense.
Then there’s that pervading sense of patriotism. My favorite reference to this is a passing mention the Khan’s daughter makes of “the Twenties,” apparently a group of young Parmistanians who want the country to join the 20th century, because let’s face it, folks, westernization is basically the best thing ever. We never hear anything about these young rebels again, nor do we see them. But apparently they exist. And, of course, the whole purpose of Cabot taking part in The Game is to help the U.S. build up its defense systems. And we know he’s successful because this is the final shot:
In terms of brilliantly awful filmmaking, “Gymkata” has it all. Dated political ideology? Check. Martial arts? Check. Substandard writing, acting and plotting? Check, check and check. Also, ninjas on horseback. There is nothing missing. Nothing. “Gymkata” is the perfect bad movie on every level. Watch it and feel your heart sink with shame at bullheaded American worldviews as your soul takes flight with the knowledge that we make terrible films like nobody else on Earth. Go USA.
Gymkommentary: a MST3K-style blog co-created by IFC News’ Matt Singer, inspired by his love of Gymkata (his enthusiasm was what led me to this gem of a movie–thanks, Matt!)