2 out of 5
Directed by: Robert Clouse
An artsy bit of opening intrigue, cutting between a man being chased across a ninja-staffed obstacle course, and a dude doing balance beam flips for the Olympics, gives us a glimpse of some inspired B-movie mash-up goodness: train someone both in these flips and martial arts, and surely you have… gymkata. Let’s pause to consider that the film chooses not to revel in this genius term, and dares not utter it at any point. Also maybe consider that this was directed by Robert Clouse of Enter the Dragon fame, who had quite a few notable flicks of that variety during his career… but I’m not sure this one gets mentioned as part of that list.
Whatever you’ve pieced together from those details, the unfortunate reality is that Gymkata doesn’t quite achieve bonkers goodness until very late into its runtime, spending its opening hour or so in a puzzling muddle of half-stitched together scenes which, yes, are amusing from afar, but only really achieve entertainment up close when you’ve put yourself through the paces enough times to secure the movie’s cult status within your brain, and then you can just laugh at its general incompetence.
But again, props to the idea-person who turned novel The Terrible Game into this: in the fictional country of Parmistan, a 900-year long tradition of an annual game – that obstacle course sequence – promises the granting of a wish to the winner. No one has ever won. But all the evil, non-U.S. countries are vying for that wish-granting this year, because something something terrorism, and so the CIA or somesuch logically reaches out to gymnast Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas) because his flippy skills are what’s needed to best the game; certainly easier to quickly train a dude who’s good at pommel horse to be a spy than to take lifelong agents and teach them how to tumble.
There’s some light training montage, some requisite flirting with the Princess of Parmistan (Tetchie Agbayani), and then it’s off to the country so Jonathan can run around Yugoslovian streets while super wild foley effects dub in for his kicks-to-faces as he backflips, and finds things to latch on to that are surprisingly exactly like parallel bars and pommel horses.
Thomas mealy-mouths his quips acceptably, but the majority of the movie has this up-and-down half-heartedness, scenes being only partially justified by vague exposition, suggestive of a list of must-hit scenes that are then Frankensteined into a movie via editing, believing the audience probably doesn’t really care as long as someone gets hit every few minutes. And if the choreography also didn’t have this on-the-spot feeling to it, that maybe would work; if Thomas was a bit more engaging; if every scene didn’t just amount to running down an alley while some squibs go off and break some bottles.
Finally, though, the games begin, and the movie allows itself some grand slow-motion indulgences and hilariously overlong sequences in order to hits its 85-minute runtime, finally achieving the innate goofiness of something entitled Gymkata.
While writing this, I’m amusing myself – the movie’s “charms” require that distance to appreciate. But it’s almost too competent during the bulk of its runtime to directly trigger that, making it a better rewatch than a first experience, even with minimal expectations.