(Originally posted Jan. 27, 2017)
Kevin: Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Norris. Seagal. Thomas. Don’t recognize that last one? Well you’re not alone. For every Arnold or Sly who captured the public’s heart, there was a Kurt Thomas or Jeff Speakman who did not. But now they are finally getting their due with the Tough Guy Digest “One and Done” series, which spotlights the men (and some women) who Hollywood tried and failed to turn into the next big action star.
First up: “Gymkata,” in which former U.S. gymnast Kurt Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, himself a star gymnast who is recruited for a mission that will give Washington an advantage in the Cold War race for nuclear supremacy. As such, the movie at least gave Thomas a symbolic victory over the Soviet Union that he was denied when the U.S. pulled out of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games, where he was widely expected to win gold.
Unfortunately despite the above trailer’s prediction, a “new kind of martial arts superhero” was decidedly not born. “Gymkata” came in 10th place at the box office its opening weekend, barely beating out the third weekend of release for “Moving Violations,” Hollywood’s attempt to turn Bill Murray’s little brother John into the next comedy superstar. But perhaps America was just not ready for Thomas’ unique mix of awkward martial arts and the occasional somersault. What say the rest of you about “Gymkata”?
Mike: Ok, so here’s the down and dirty on the plot: Jonathan is a gymnast whose father is a ninja who is also missing and presumed dead. Jonathan is tasked by the U.S. government with winning a deadly competition, referred to simply as “The Game,” so they can install a satellite monitoring station in the tiny mountain nation of Parmistan as an early warning detection device in the event of a nuclear attack. Uncle Sam needs him we are told because sending in the troops would cause an international incident, while for some reason an annual competition in which every single loser is murdered year after year will not.
So we’re basically in a “Mortal Kombat” situation here where the winner is granted two things and two things only: The first thing is his very life (which is good if you don’t want to die), and the second is ONE REQUEST (that I’m assuming the country’s leader, known as “The Kahn,” cannot refuse, like Don Corleone on his daughter’s wedding day). Well call me crazy but this sounds like a contest anyone would be stupid not to sign up for!
A little background on Parmistan: it’s one of the smallest, poorest shitholes on the planet, and is so far behind the times that the average citizen is probably envious of the serfs from the Middle Ages, so you better believe the average request from the winner is probably something along the lines of “a shack with a flushable toilet.”
The CIA gets Jonathan to be their man inside the tournament so that he can save his country and avenge the death of his father who perished while competing in it. They assemble a team to train Jonathan and literally every member of the team is way better than him, yet none of them are the ones chosen to compete. One of the team members is even the Princess of Parmistan, and within 10 minutes she abandons training Jonathan to make sweet sex with him “Parmistan style” all over the house (“Parmistan style” is when you get a rusty trombone while doing a handstand). She’s supposed to have a lot riding on this deal, with the fate of her country hanging in the balance and all, but she’s more concerned with getting her daily dose of gymkata dick.
With his training complete, Jonathan is finally ready to cross the border into Parmistan. Even though his handlers have made it pretty clear that he will be in danger, Jonathan doesn’t give a shit because he’s a proud white American man in an Arabic country, which means he’ll be rocking blue jeans and a bright red sweatshirt no matter where he goes.
In his defense Jonathan really doesn’t care about being incognito because the CIA has armed him with a hatchet and a switchblade, which traditionally are two items that come in way handier than an AK-47 and a few hundred rounds of armor-piercing ammo, especially in a place where you’ll be surrounded by enemies. Anyway, through many trials and tribulations, Jonathan finally arrives in Parmistan, and what does he find when he gets there? A BUNCH OF OTHER AMERICANS COMPETING IN “THE GAME”! If it was this hard for Jonathan to get into Parmistan, how the hell did the other Americans get there? Half of them aren’t even in shape!
We finally meet The Kahn, and I’m quickly wondering if they couldn’t secure Judd Hirsch for the role …
… because he looks more like a guy trying to send back lox at H&H Bagels than a blood-thirsty Mongolian ruler of a foreign nation. He does have a great catchphrase though: “Yak-Mana!,” which I think we should all chant from here on out. “Yak-Mana!” really gets his men roused up and ready for violence!
Speaking of violence, I really don’t understand this competition. It would appear everyone has to run an obstacle course where at any moment one of the judges standing on the sidelines can kill you whenever they wish, not to mention the other contestants are also free to kill you, and any civilian is also free to kill you! Has anyone ever actually won “The Game” in its 900-year history?
Anyway, after many twists and turns, there is a fantastic moment where Jonathan finds himself in town that is completely populated by Parmistan’s mentally insane. The entire village attacks him at once, but Jonathan quickly discovers that they have a pommel horse covered in moss right there in the center of town, which he utilizes to great success in order to kick every man, woman, and child in the face.
By the end of the film all the other competitors have died, so there’s no break in the 900-year tradition there, leaving only Jonathan who has successfully won “The Game.” As a result he has apparently saved the world from a possible nuclear annihilation, and as a bonus discovered his father is still alive.
The Kahn, who proves himself to be a pretty nice fella, is permitted to keep his throne thanks in part to “The ‘20s,” a covert group within Parmistan that is committed to bringing their fledgling nation into the 20th century. This despite the fact that he has perpetrated thousands of crimes against humanity throughout his reign. In short, this movie was the basis behind Operation Desert Storm and we followed it to the letter.
CJ: While Mike did a great job summarizing the overall plot, I’d like to go back to the beginning and discuss the incredibly difficult training Jonathan has to go through in order to be ready to win this unwinnable game, which includes:
- Having a trainer wrap rope loosely around him before walking off.
- Walking up a couple of stairs on his hands before falling.
- Getting flipped over while in the backyard.
- Chopping wood while some guy gives him advice (no one points out or acknowledges a giant hawk is inexplicably perched on this trainer’s arm).
- Running behind a trainer who rides bareback on a horse.
- Watching a guy who is blindfolded do some kind of knife calisthenics.
- Smacking wooden poles (not wooden swords) against each other.
- Walking up a couple more stairs on his hands and falling.
- Avoiding a sudden knife attack that involves the Princess brandishing a knife and holding it at his face for a two count before he “quickly” grabs her wrist.
- Conquering children’s playground handlebars (about 8 of them).
So, the question is: when did any of that training come into play throughout the rest of the movie? And seriously, what the fuck was up with the hawk?
Kevin: Yes there is a lot that is baffling about this stretch of the movie, but the biggest issue for me is that at no point does Jonathan ask why it’s so important for the government to send an amateur gymnast to compete in this ancient and apparently impossible tournament. In that case let me do it for you Jonathan: Seriously, why is the government placing the security of the United States and its allies in the hands of a diminutive amateur gymnast? If they had sent John Rambo he would have won the game, been declared the new king of Parmistan, and then overthrown the Soviet regime for good measure, making the need for a missile defense shield unnecessary, all within a weekend.
It can’t be because of his toughness and agility, because when Jonathan is introduced to the Princess, this is what happens:
Perfect way to introduce your new action hero, have him get easily overpowered by a tiny woman while essentially whining, “Hey wait, stop it, c’mon!” Also I have no idea what his “hope to tell ya” line at the end is supposed to mean.
CJ already highlighted this, but I also have to ask again: Why the fuck does Jonathan need to master the art of walking on his hands up some stairs? And as CJ also mentioned earlier, Jonathan blindfolds one of his trainers, who proceeds to do this:
Seriously, why isn’t this guy the one competing in the game again?
CJ: Well while Kurt Thomas may not have been the most imposing athlete or fighter, he makes up for it with a master class of emotions during the course of 90 minutes: Show me scared Kurt! Show me angry! Show me …
Meeting the Princess and you DEFINITELY aren’t getting a giant hard-on:
Finding your friend’s dead body:
Flirting with the Princess while her betrothed sits next to her:
Making the flirting less obvious:
Quick! Her other guy is on to you! Throw him off your trail!:
Vowing vengeance after your dad is shot with an arrow while you are hugging him:
Getting revenge for the death of your father (who it turns out is actually not dead, but who cares):
While simultaneously cumming:
Something I don’t remember, so I’ll go with … surprised?:
Victory! Someone’s about to lose his virginity!
Kevin: Speaking of the Princess, while Jonathan is typically whining about how she never talks to him, his handler says this: “The Princess will come around. She has an interesting background, her mother was Indonesian …” You may be expecting him to say more about her; I know I was. But nope that is it, her mother was Indonesian. Wow that is interesting!
Shortly after this the handler finally gives us an idea of what gymkata is supposed to be: “A subtle blend of the martial arts of the East and the fighting skills of the West.” I have no idea what the “fighting skills of the West” are, unless he means two drunk assholes outside a club yelling “C’mon, you want some of this, I’ll fuck you up bro!” to each other for 10 minutes before respectively letting their friends drag them away without ever throwing a punch, and then talking over late-night pizza about how they were totally about to kick the other guy’s ass, for real yo.
Also, apparently the CIA has been training Jonathan to win “The Game” based on their previous intel about how the rules are enforced. Although as we later see, and as his handler just tells him, the rules constantly change, and plus there are no rules anyway. So basically no one knows what the fuck they are talking about.
Anthony: I on the other hand do have some thoughts on this ancient tournament that hasn’t had a winner in 900 years, which obviously makes the tiny white American kid a shoe-in. Bet your childrens’ college fund now boys.
We first see Jonathan’s father take an arrow in the liver while dangling 90 feet over a raging river and presumably falls to his death, but he somehow not only survives but takes another arrow in the middle of his back later. Yet by the end of the movie he rides out of Parmistan with nothing more than a gimpy arm. You’re telling me this fucking guy couldn’t win the contest but his pansy gymnast boy is supposed to do it?
I surmise that Jonathan was chosen by the CIA because he’s obviously the son of an indestructible Superman-like being, not because of the gymnastics. Also the fact that he manages to find makeshift gymnastics equipment wherever he goes and excretes chalk from his hands whenever he needs to twirl on something.
Either way, after he infiltrates Parmistan Jonathan meets his contact, The Stork, after being warned about The Viper. Fuck you nickname guy. The briefing is so good Jonathan asks The Viper who he is 10 minutes after this scene.
The best part is when one of Jonathan’s bodyguards at the outdoor market (Kevin: Seriously, why did he need to go shopping out in the open while assassins are looking for him?) says there’s a little anti-American sentiment in the country, but … and then he eats a fucking spear in his chest! Amazing! Supposedly Parmistan doesn’t allow guns within its borders, but the 12 people chasing them down with AK-47s never got the memo. He gets out of this danger like a true hero: he runs away, a cop kills one of the pursuers, and a bad driver runs the other off the road. Good job there Rambo.
Kevin: Yes that confused me because earlier Jonathan was told that he couldn’t be given a gun because they are strictly forbidden in Parmistan (although from what they had seen of Kurt Thomas so far they were probably more worried he’d shoot himself by mistake). Although I think Mike is being unfair to the weapons they give Jonathan, including the small axe. Clearly you missed the part where The Stork explains that it is “custom made from modern alloys,” and then proceeds to use it to cut through a thin metal pipe. You see, it’s not just an axe, it’s a really sharp axe! Eat your heart out James Bond!
Later though Jonathan does get his hands on a gun, and I don’t know if I find it weird or refreshing that he machine-guns a guy to death and acts like taking a human life was up there with seeing your third-favorite NFL team lose a preseason game in person in terms of traumatic life experiences.
Anthony: During this stretch of the movie the Princess is captured but quickly rescued, and they are double-crossed by The Stork, who is immediately killed by Jonathan’s CIA handler before they all depart for “The Game” like they had planned to before. So you could have cut the last 20 minutes out and nothing would have changed.
Either way, once we finally get to “The Game” and see the other competitors, my question is: how much training do the world’s athletes need? They release three local prisoners with the chance for freedom if they finish the course, and one of them makes it 75% of the way. What’s in the prison slop over there, steroids?
I’m also thinking that the black-clad hooded warriors who mark the boundaries – and occasionally kill the contestants – are rejected golf hoarders. They might as well hold a leader board with the names of who’s dead and alive. “Quiet please! Person dying!”
But where this film really stands out is the Town of Crazies. The country has put all their nut jobs in one place to keep track of them. Smartest thing I’ve ever seen … I’m looking at you Florida. A series of insane attackers come at Jonathan and he fends them off, climaxing in the pommel horse sequence in the middle of town:
The most memorable part during this stretch is the cleric who beckons ol’ chalkhands seemingly to safety, but turns around to reveal his ass is literally hanging out. Lemme say that again, there’s no back to his outfit. It’s ass and heels for all to see. Now that’s writing people!:
And there’s also a three-minute slow motion sequence in crazy town. Three minutes of painfully slowed footage of running and climbing and dogs barking. Why? Fuck you reasonable pacing.
Finally, at the end of the film we see recaps of the best action sequences, and by that I mean stuntmen walking into the perfect spot where Kurt Thomas could do an unnecessary triple Brumski and hit them with a chalky hand or foot as he landed. Nothing like showing you what you just saw in case you want your money back and need a reminder why.
Kevin: Before we conclude I have a few more random things that struck me while watching “Gymkata”:
- Is this the lowest stakes for any action movie ever, whether or not America can use some backwards fictional country for its proposed Star Wars missile defense system? Since Reagan’s strategy was to bankrupt the Soviets by forcing them to keep up with our military spending, perhaps this was all a ruse to convince them we were so committed to this missile shield that we would enter a barbaric race in a country we could easily take over with one Black Hawk helicopter and a drunken National Guard unit.
- At the start of the race, Jonathan justifies the U.S. government’s faith and monumental tax-payer-funded investment in his abilities by immediately getting tripped up, kicked in the face, and falling behind the other competitors.
- Later Jonathan is climbing up a ridge on the kind of rope we tried and failed to master in 7th grade gym (which is why we are writing about “Gymkata” and not participating in “The Game”). The bad guys set the bottom part of the rope on fire, and god bless the film’s editor who deserves at least a Participation Oscar for trying his best to make it appear that Jonathan was somehow in danger of the flame at any point in this sequence.
CJ: I have some last-minute thoughts as well:
- First off, was there a time limit to “The Game”? Because if not, doesn’t Jonathan’s dad technically win as well, since by the end of the movie he has made it back?
- “Gymkata” also has one of those classic scenes early on where the “Special Intelligence Agency” agent explains the entire plot, which as Mike noted sounds ridiculous. More ridiculous is that Jonathan’s reaction is essentially “I completely understand all of this, go on.”
- Later in the flea market a vendor is talking to Jonathan and the Princess, but if you look closely the vendor never opens his mouth.
- If not for an off-camera cat meowing, Jonathan would somehow have missed the dead bloody body with a hatchet in it that was in the deserted alley.
- I enjoyed it when, while at the banquet before “The Game,” the Khan speaks to Jonathan about his dad and then announces to the crowd, “Let us all wish his son good fortune.” This is followed by very tepid applause.
- I thought the Parmistan warriors looked like the Foot Clan. That is all.
- It’s also great that the movie didn’t spend much time developing the characters and their motivation. Jonathan likes the Princess and she won’t talk to him, but don’t worry cause they will be sexing in about two minutes. Jonathan needs to train for “The Game,” and you will see no real progress, but don’t worry, he’s good to go.
Mike: I have one Post-Script I’d like to add. I feel like this is going to be a recurring theme in a lot of movies we write about, but to reiterate, I cannot stand when subtitles are on screen for no reason whatsoever. At one point someone says, “We’re going to Karabal, on The Caspian Sea,” and 30 seconds later there is a shot of a city and the subtitle reads, “Karabal, on The Caspian Sea.”
Kevin: Well while Kurt Thomas didn’t get the box office gold, or even the Olympic gold now that I think about it, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him since he was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2003. He also had a special gymnastics move – the Thomas Flair – named after him by a group of pommel horse specialists. I don’t know what that is, but I’m just gonna assume it involves kicking crazy villagers in the face repeatedly. So chin up Kurt, as far as we’re concerned your moves in “Gymkata” deserve a 10 out 10. Yak-Mana indeed!
Check back soon for our next “One and Done”: Jeff Speakman’s tour-de-force performance as “Jeff” in “The Perfect Weapon.”
Thanks for joining the discussion, and to get regular updates on all our content hit the Follow button and check us out on Twitter.