Sometimes we have to wait all year long for the one movie that distinguishes itself above all others—or is it below all others?—well, at any rate, beyond all others for the honor of being the biggest howler of the year.

We’re not talking about simple bad movies here—they’re a dime a dozen. No, these movies are so wildly (and sometimes imaginatively) mind-boggling in concept, plot and characterization that they earn your respect just by their very existence—because you can’t imagine anyone in his right mind spending money to make them.

In 1984, I think my pet film was Ninja III: The Domination, with its delirious mix of genres and its karate-chopping aerobics instructor heroine.

This year is not half over, but I think we may be able to call the contest closed for ’85. Gymkata is here, and it sweeps all the competition aside.

Here are the unadorned facts: A government agent contacts a gymnast (Olympic medalist Kurt Thomas, in his, uh, acting debut) about a secret mission. He wants the gymnast to go to an imaginary Third World nation called Parmistan and take part in the annual survival games, which involve a brutal obstacle course that sometimes ends in death.

Somehow—and I’m not too clear on this—his victory will help America’s efforts to establish a satellite base in Parmistan from which the “Star Wars” defense system will be run. Well, since every right-minded citizen wants that, we’re behind Kurt all the way.

He’s a little wary, though. “Why don’t we just send in the troops?” he wonders. Who says there are no more Renaissance Men?

Kurt gets trained in the martial arts and falls in love with a princess from Parmistan. Then they’re off to her country to join the games, in which international competitors scale cliffs, shinny across gorges, and make a hair-raising trip through “The Village of Crazies,” where Parmistan’s criminally insane are sent.

It’s pretty incoherent. The film (especially the first third) seems to have been edited with a blunt instrument of some sort—when the scene changes, characters are all but cut off in mid-sentence. This is a blessing, of course.

The emphasis is on the martial arts action, and there’s plenty of it—but with a peculiar gymnastic slant. If there’s a metal bar attached to a wall, you can be sure Thomas wil grab on and go into one of his Olympic routines—except every time he extends his leg, he’s taking out somebody’s face. And it’s all accompanied by those great sound effects from kung fu movies: the unnatural whooshing when Kurt goes somersaulting through the air (which he does a lot) and the thwack! when somebody gets punched. It’s the same thwack! you hear in every Bruce Lee movie, and I sear it’s left over from an old Three Stooges short.

I have only one serious problem with considering Gymkata the goofiest movie of 1985. Oh, it’s stupid enough, but, unlike Ninja III, it’s just not much fun. However, it is fundamentally reassuring. A subtitle at the end tells us that the “Star Wars” satellite station has indeed been established in Parmistan. So, the world can sleep in peace at night—and, presumably, Kurt Thomas can go back to being a gymnast. So we hope.

First published in the Herald, 1985.

There are worse movies and weirder movies (I will post my Ninja III review soon), but somehow Gymkata says “Eighties” in spades. The idea of an SDI outpost being established in Parmistan is perfectly fitting, and “Village of Crazies” could be the title for a website devoted entirely of reviews of 1980s movies. But no, I had to go with “What a Feeling!”


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