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Sunday, March 17, 2013
I swear, I actually love this movie. I had a copy on VHS--purchased used from a video store, and in fantastic condition because it'd pretty much never been watched--that I brought along for one of the B movie nights with an old Dungeons and Dragons group I was in. I sponsored it three different times at B Fest so I could make a crowd susceptible to its charms watch it as a captive audience. I talked my friend Joel into holding up gymnastics score placards eleven years ago at the first B Fest screening. Despite everything I'm about to say about it, I find it endlessly entertaining and endlessly rewatchable in a fascinating way. Of course, "entertaining" is not always a synonym for "good", and today's movie shows that more than anything else that comes to mind.
Before I summarize the plot, I'd like to make a point about how pop culture tends to view decades. If you're watching something set in "the sixties", nine times out of ten it's hippies, Hendrix and the Chicago police riot in 1968. You miss out entirely on Telstar and Camelot and the struggle for civil rights in America if you're concentrating on stoned college kids trying to keep out of Vietnam, but the view you tend to get of The Sixties in the media is more, say 1967-1974 than the actual calendar dates with a 6 in the decade field. And with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, the eighties really didn't start being The Eighties to me until Ronald Reagan was given a second term. After he was safely ensconed back in the White House we got The Day After on television, new wave and Michael Jackson at the height of his powers on the radio, shoulder pads and giant hair on MTV, and every punk gang in movies or TV had one person wearing those sunglasses that were a thin bar of plastic wrapped around his head and made him look like Cyclops from the X-Men. And when people went to the movies at this point, they got a gigantic load of jingoistic bullshit meant to appeal to people that celebrate a successful bully and who also wanted to see the Cold War play out without everyone getting vaporized by nuclear fire. This is the time period where both James Bond and John Rambo teamed up with the heroic Taliban in their fight against the Soviet Union, and the the era where that old video clip of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam Hussein's hand was shot. It was a time when people willfully kept their blinders on and pretty much refused to even consider anything negative about America; people of the same vintage as myself might remember "Born in the USA" being inescapable on the radio around this time, and that song sure sounds like a fist-pumping anthem celebrating the uniqueness of America. Well, as long as you only ever listen to or sing the chorus instead of the lyrics describing a homeless Vietnam veteran wondering why he was discarded to die on the street by the society he was drafted to serve.
My theory of media interpretation and film criticism (influenced immeasurably by both Stephen King's Danse Macabre and David J. Skal's The Monster Show; if you don't own them you need to get yourself a copy of each one, pronto) is that horror films show what kinds of things are making people nervous and upset in a given society at a given time. If it's the 1950s, atomic radiation is the cause of your problems, or an invasion of vastly more powerful alien conquerors. Not a lot of vampires and werewolves hit the drive in screens around this time; as explicitly supernatural creatures they weren't necessarily what people were freaking out about consciously or otherwise. (For that matter, the vampire in The Blood of Dracula and the eponymous creature from I Was a Teenage Werewolf were both the products of psychologists trying to make bad kids behave--not a saliva-transmitted case of monsterism to be found in either of them.) And my own belief is that the cheaper and faster you make your movie, the closer you are going to be to the national id, if only by accident. There's two forces working in complement to make this happen: First, the filmmakers want their product to appeal to a mass audience and that means you have to make it as broadly appealing to as many different people as possible. Second, they don't have time or money for any aspect of the final product that would require nuance or finesse. Film production is hideously expensive and the lower you are on the food chain the less time you have to fix even the most glaring or obvious mistakes. And during the making of Gymkata, every expense was spared; every corner was cut.
So. On to the film.
Gymkata stars a man who probably would have earned a gold medal in gymnastics at the 1980 Olympics, but in a fit of diplomatic rage (something something Moscow is hosting the games and the USSR just invaded Afghanistan) the United States boycotted the event. As a consolation prize, Kurt Thomas got to rip off "The Most Dangerous Game" on a sofa-change budget and with some truly ridiculous set pieces. I bet he'd probably like the Olympic prestige instead. I would, and I love me some B movies. And I'm not a gymnast at the peak of physical condition like Thomas was at the time.
The film starts with a gymnastics routine shown in slow motion with Jonathan Cabot's groin highlighted thanks to some unfortunate camera-placement choices (imagine the movie in 3-D!), and when the scene changes to the post-routine walk off we're treated to the sight of what is obviously a high school gym (with those collapsible wooden bleacher seats on the wall) rather than a gigantic Olympic stadium as . A high-ranking operative from Totally Not the CIA talks to Cabot and convinces him to do something suicidally stupid: Go to the nation of Parmistan and participate in a ritual where he runs through a Murderworld-style obstacle course in order to impress "the Kahn", the country's despotic ruler. If he survives the Game (which no foreigner has managed to do over the last several centuries), the Kahn will allow Cabot to make one request, which traditionally must be granted. The Utterly Not From the CIA guy wants Cabot to use his gymnastics skills as a basis for learning empty-hand, knife fighting and quarterstaff skils so that he will have that certain edge you only get by being short, muscular and having a sad half-mullet that can't really commit to its full splendor. Once he keeps from being painfully murdered by the personal death squads of a Third World dictator he's supposed to ask the Kahn to let the U.S. build a satellite tracking station in Parmistan so that people will get an extra 40 seconds' warning if Moscow decides to nuke America. To sweeten the deal, the CIA dude says Cabot's father mysteriously disappeared playing the Game earlier and perhaps our hero can find out what happened to him. I don't think it's much of a mystery, honestly, because every single person that played the Game for the last 900 years got killed. But hey. Maybe Cabot missed a few logic classes while he was training for the Olympics.
For some reason Cabot thinks this is a great idea and goes along with it; what follows is an extremely budget-minded version of the training montage from either a James Bond film or a kung fu movie, where Cabot learns the skills that he will inevitably be using in the second and third acts in order to prevail (because he's the hero in an American action movie in the 1980s). What we get are lots of standing backflips that actually do look impressive, and then some jogging, firewood-chopping, jungle gym rope slinging and the ability to walk up stairs on your hands. The corner-cutting philosophy of the director (Robert Clouse, who also gave America its first look at Bruce Lee with Enter the Dragon, if you can believe that) is truly on display in the training scenes. There's only one sound effect whenever someone falls down (whether on dry leaves, packed dirt, a hardwood floor or gigantic boulders). The Asian martial arts master puts on a display of paired-weapons fighting to show how badass he is, but he only does anything with the sickle in his right hand. There's a gigantic falcon hanging out during the wood-chopping scene that is never explained and doesn't show up for the rest of the montage, let alone the rest of the movie (I prefer to think that the bird wanted more money and was fired partway through filming). There's a very brief introduction to the Kahn's daughter, Princess Rubali ("Quite an interesting background--her mother was Indonesian," is all we really get to know about her). Apparently with the Princess' insider knowledge of Parmistan Cabot will stand a better chance at winning the Game. Also, while he's in the country he's supposed to stop a palace coup planned by Zamir, the Kahn's cheif adivsor, played by Richard Norton (who saved the producers some money by also choreographing the stunt and fight scenes). The vizier apparently wants to open Parmistan's borders and stop executing its citizens and every foreigner in a rigged murder game with a nearly millenium-long history of torture and barbarism, but he won't let America put in a radar station so the Totally Not CIA wants him deader than Elvis and the Kahn left in charge for the foreseaable future. I bet you're wondering how the Agency managed to extract the princess and learn about the palace coup in a society that is pathologically closed off from outsider contact. That's an excellent question, and one that the movie has less than no interest in even bringing up (let alone answering it). Hell, they don't even realize they need to explain how Rubali's mother made it to Parmistan as a foreigner without being taken out by a kill squad.
The plan is to sneak Cabot and the Princess into Karabal, on the Caspian Sea (via a tour boat run by a company that can't spell "Mediterranean" on their logo--between that and the Kahn I wonder if this movie would have worked a lot better if typewriters had a spell check), use a local contact to get them near the Parmistani border and then sneak across so that Cabot can be sent in to join the Game. This works perfectly other than the part where Cabot and the princess go out for a walk, she gets kidnapped, a local diplomat observes that there's just a little bit of anti-American sentiment in Karabal (and then gets taken out of the story by an Arrow Out of Nowhere!), and we get to see the unique martial art of Gymkata in action for the first time. Mostly it involves doing flips and kicking people in the head, but one of the thugs that attacks Cabot falls down without being touched. Clearly he was just so impressed by Cabot's mad skills that he got dropped like a hot rock. Or the director couldn't afford a second take. Could be either thing, really.
Cabot sneaks his way into the mansion where Rubali is being held after another example of the unique fighting techniques he's learned (this time his mad skills break down to "make sure there's a parallel bar waiting in the alley where you're going to get in a fight") and holds his own against the half-dozen of mooks as well as the level boss, though using an AK-47 in a gymkata fight scene strikes me as sort of a cheat. It's an effective cheat, though, so what do I know? Then Cabot's got to run through the streets of Karabal avoiding a couple cars full of submachine-gun-toting thugs and his bright red sweater appears to be kind of a tactical error if he wants to remain inconspicuous. The use of stock audio effects shows up again, as all the various guns sound exactly the same when fired. Cabot and Rubali make it back to their staging office and find out that the local contact sold them out and the CIA dude from the beginning of the movie shoots everyone that isn't our hero or the princess. Well, that settles that.
After some rafting through not particularly rapid rapids, Cabot and Rubali make it to the Parmistani border and are immediately tracked down by the saddest looking ninja warriors in cinema history. It's been at least four minutes without any backflipping so Cabot takes on a pack of ninjas and does pretty well until one of them wallops him in the back of the head while he's beating on someone else (when he hits the ground we get to hear that body-drop sound effect again). He wakes up in an opulent bed and Zamir himself greets him and sets out the agenda for his visit to Parmistan: a ceremonial welcome from the Kahn (who turns out to look like a Taiwanese knockoff of Mel Brooks), an explanation of the course (run, climb a rope, run, traverse a ravine on a rope bridge, run, sneak through a town full of criminally insane lunatics, run, finish line). The other athletes who have shown up to run the course are in this scene, begging the question of just how often the Game is played, and how a country that executes everyone who wanders into it tells anyone what this year's schedule is. And the film's cost-cutting nature betrays itself again, as these world-class athletes appear to be months away from a mid life crisis, and not badass enough to get a second callback if they were trying out to join the Norm Wooster Singers.
Not content to leave us with just the sweet Warhammer terrain we saw as the Game terrain map, the movie then shows us three men "convicted of grave crimes" sent off to die in terror as the live-action tutorial for the Game athletes. When Zamir sets off on horseback, by the way, one of the extras gets shoulder-checked to the ground by one of the athletes' horses, and even the horse looks a little abashed as it happens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all three political prisoners are rapidly murdered by the ninjas (two of them hit the ground with that same body-drop sound effect). And with that morale-building resolution to the tutorial, it's time for Cabot to get a good night's sleep and then try not to get murdered by the saddest ninjas in the world, Zamir himself (wearing a vest that looks like he killed and skinned a bathmat), or any of his fellow competitors who don't like the idea of him winning the Game when they try things for real the next day...
I started out loving this movie for the usual B-film reasons--the utterly nonsensical plot, the requirement to have gymnastics equipment around for the fight scenes (including a pommel horse at one point!), the aura of money-saving supercheapness, and the complete lack of charisma or acting talent from Kurt Thomas. The totally unexplained falcon. The leaden dialogue. The cry of "Yakmallah!" from the Kahn at various intervals. Even the schadenfreude at poor Robert Clouse having to make this movie after he caught lightning in a jar with Enter the Dragon. But looking at the movie in 2013, I realize that it's one of the most accidentally honest films of the decade. Every single aspect of life in Parmistan puts it about a quarter mile out of Hell, and the despotic tyrant in charge of the country laughs as he sends his undesireables off to be murdered. But he's not a Communist, so the CIA works behind the scenes and sends in a special agent to prop his regime up and keep Zamir from instituting any kind of reform because the Kahn is the devil they know, and the powers that be in America are much happier dealing with that kind of hellspawn than an unknown quantity kind of hellspawn. And if the good people of Nevada can be a little bit safer because someone in Suckstobeyouistan gets tortured to death on the whim of that leader, well, that's the price of doing business. Watching this film after the Arab Spring and the revolution in Libya gives the politically aware viewer a completely different taste in their mouth than someone in 1985, I'd imagine. You would think that it would take Noam Chomsky to write a film this critical of American involvement in other sovereign states and that no studio would be insane enough to release it during the second term of Ronaldus Magnus. Instead it was just business as usual for the studio trying to make a buck with a cheap action film. All it takes is a little time and distance to see what was there all along. If MGM knew what this movie was going to look like later and thought that a mass audience would have the same reaction I did, they might well have pulled the plug on the project entirely and gone looking for the gasoline and matches left over from when United Artists burned every print of The Spook Who Sat By the Door they had.