In honor of the recently deceased gymnast Kurt Thomas, I decided to watch Gymkata, his first—and only—venture into the movie business. It may technically be based off Dan Tyler Moore’s 1957 novel The Terrible Game, but let’s be real here: the film only—and I mean only—exists to piggyback off of Thomas’s stardom, straining at every angle to show off his talent while also squeezing him into some bad Bond-wannabe nonsense. The resulting product was just about as good as this tagline from the trailer: “When gymnastics and karate are fused, the combustion becomes an explosion, and a new kind of martial art superhero is born: GYMKATA.” Yep, that’s the kind of movie we’re getting here.
Supposedly around the Hindu Kush mountain range, there lies a tiny Asian country of Parmistan, which, for some inexplicable reason, forces all foreigners—and yes, the film apparently means all foreigners—to compete in “the Game” (that’s the movie’s name for it, not mine). The Game is essentially a big obstacle course spread around the country’s wilderness, in which you mainly have to run around a lot, as well as climb up and inch across extraordinarily long ropes. While you’re doing this, however, there’s deadly ninjas trying to cut and set fire to said ropes, not to mention constantly shooting arrows at you all the while.
To say this is extraordinarily unfair would be the mother of all understatements, but America has the hardworking gymnast Jonathan Cabot (yes, played by Thomas) be next in line for it anyway*, just because they get an important satellite monitoring station if he wins. After briefly preparing with the obligatory motivational coach and hot side chick (the latter of which is, of course, Parmistan’s very own princess), he spends the entire rest of the movie beating down baddies with virtually zero effort. And that’s pretty much the entire story.
But believe me when I say these beatdowns are extraordinarily entertaining. In one scene, a high bar just so happens to be hanging in the middle of some random alley, so our hero leaps up onto it, starts swinging, and uses that momentum to whack enemies coming at him from both directions. Later, he uses a conveniently placed pommel horse to swing around and kick several foes at once. And so on.
When Cabot doesn’t have any random gymnastics equipment at his disposal, he’s still able to implausibly lay dozens of enemies on the ground with only his feet and fists. The only real setback he’s faced with is getting knocked unconscious during one of these fights, but that’s only done so he can wind up at Parmistan’s central palace and get on with things there.
As for Thomas’s performance as Cabot? To be fair, it’s not any worse than the entire rest of the cast, but speaking frankly here… it’s not exactly good at all. A large chunk of that rests on the screenplay itself (when notified about his long-missing father seemingly dying in the Game, Cabot apparently forgets about that fact less than five seconds later), but I’d also like to blame the casting choice of Thomas. To be clear, he was an extremely talented gymnast, but prior to Gymkata, he had zero acting experience whatsoever. How’d you think he was going to turn out?
Honestly, though, one could only really be disappointed by Gymkata if they were expecting it to lean more heavily into its severely underutilized R rating. Sure, there’s a few semi-gory shots here and there, and the whole “village of the crazies” sequences is surprisingly creepy, but children of the time already saw much worse in the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If anything, the film is a perfect summary of what the best PG-13 ‘80s B-flicks were like: good, (mostly) clean fun so perfectly stupid, it’s simply impossible to resist. MST3K needs to take this one on, and they need to do it now.
*Of course, nobody has ever won the Game prior to Cabot, so I don’t know why the SIA (Special Intelligence Agency—no points for guessing what that’s supposed to stand in for) would choose him in particular. But whatever.