Moving Pictures
Mar 31, 2023, 06:28AM

Unicorn Cinema: Gymkata

Gymkata is a one-of-a-kind experience, a unicorn among unicorns.

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What makes a good movie good? What makes a bad movie bad? What causes one to cross into the other’s territory? We’ve all heard someone describe a movie as “so bad it’s good,” while the less discussed inverse—“so good it’s bad”—could apply to any number of today’s competently made but forgettable movies (call it the Jon Favreau Effect). But what exactly are the markers of each? Who decides which is which? Where do we draw the lines?

Roger Ebert, with typical overconfidence in his own ability to draw those lines, wrote that Rowdy Herrington’s Road House “exists right on the edge between the ‘good-bad movie’ and the merely bad. I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer. This is not a good movie. But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one, either.” As usual, Ebert was half-correct. Road House isn’t boring, but it also doesn’t demand ironic distance to be enjoyed. It’s a strange film—a mix of slick Joel Silver action blockbuster, Western hangout movie, and Taoist martial arts flick about bouncer culture—that demands to be appreciated on its own terms.

There’s no absolute criteria for what’s good or bad, which is why I’m suspicious of qualitative labels in criticism, even if they’re useful shorthand for “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls isn’t “so bad it’s good”; rather, Verhoeven consciously employs lowbrow signifiers and tropes to satirize Vegas excess and, by extension, American capitalism. The presence of these signifiers and tropes, along with Elizabeth Berkley’s almost extrinsically hammy performance, might lead one to believe it’s bad, but it’s impossible to argue that Showgirls is not weird and singular. For me, it’s the best kind of movie: a ridiculous film that transcends easy labels like good and bad, one that forces me to question what those words even mean. For lack of a better word, it’s a unicorn.

I’ve wanted to do a series on unicorn cinema for a long time. They’re not only my favorite movies to watch but also the easiest to write about. A unicorn movie might be narratively contrived, miserably acted, tonally confused, and/or poorly crafted, but it’ll never lack idiosyncrasies that are worthy of reflection and discussion, or at least things that will make any attentive viewer ask, “What the hell am I watching?” Unicorns can be personal labors of love, like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or Craig Denney’s The Astrologer. Sometimes they’re genre exercises that go off the rails and crash into the January release slate, like Pat O’Connor’s The January Man or Steven Knight’s Serenity. Or severely high-pitched flavor-of-the-month social commentary like Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick. And sometimes they’re crossover vehicles for athletes, like Gregory Dark’s See No Evil (WWE’s Kane), Craig R. Baxley’s Stone Cold (former Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth), and Robert Clouse’s Gymkata (Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas).

While each of these unicorns deserves its own write-up, the inaugural entry goes to Gymkata, a unicorn among unicorns. I don’t know how Gymkata came about, apart from the obvious—that some moneyed party gave one of the least charismatic men alive a feature-length starring vehicle on the sole basis of his gymnastic skills—and I don’t really care to research it. It’s much funnier to imagine some hotshot producer lowering his shades to get a better look at the sexless Thomas—whose vibe is somewhere between youth pastor and Denny Blazin Hazen—before affirming, “This guy’s got the goods.”

The movie starts with slow-mo shots of Thomas in a parallel bar competition, intercut with shots of rapidly galloping horse legs. The dissonance of this cold open, the clash of the slow-motion gymnastics and high-speed horses, sets the tone for the confusing movie that follows, a film that seems reverse-engineered around the question “What if someone combined gymnastics and karate?” The horses, mounted by masked ninjas, chase a sweaty, exhausted man through the wilderness. He’s part of some sort of Most Dangerous Game scenario, an obstacle course of death, pursued by a bearded man with an earring (Richard Norton). As he hangs over a gorge by a rope, the bearded man shoots him with an arrow, and he falls to his death—or does he?

As the man lets go of the rope in slow-mo, the film clumsily cuts back to slow-mo Thomas (there’s a lot of slow-mo) completing his routine and dismounting before it gets right to the exposition: Thomas is Jonathan Cabot, Olympic medalist and son of a famed colonel (the contestant from earlier). A government agent and friend of the colonel wants Cabot to compete in the fictional country of Parmistan, “a tiny mountain nation in the middle of the Hindu Kush range.” The agent explains to Cabot that the US wants to build a Star Wars satellite defense system in Parmistan, but Zamir, the bearded man from earlier, plans to stage a coup against the Kahn of Parmistan. In the hands of the United States, he explains, the Star Wars system in Parmistan would save lives (ha!), but Zamir would rather sell the rights to our enemies. Therefore, Cabot must train and compete in the deadly game that claimed his father (or did it?), a game whose winner can make any wish to the Kahn. It’s a very roundabout way of installing a satellite defense system, especially when the usual option of assassinating the leader and installing a puppet regime is right there.

This convoluted nonsense is mere set-up that most viewers will forget within five minutes, as they’re distracted by more pressing questions, like why is the princess of Parmistan (Tetchie Agbayani) helping train Cabot in the US? And why is she Indonesian? (The movie’s explanation: “Her mother’s Indonesian.”) The princess doesn’t speak for the first few scenes, and her budding romance with Cabot has all the makings of the archetypal “boring white guy and his silent Asian wife” couple. If you assume that the princess’ first line of dialogue would be memorable, something that catches Cabot a little off guard, then you don’t know Gymkata. While examining a weapon with Cabot and his agency handler, she off-handedly remarks, “Fine piece of work,” and no one blinks an eye. That settles it. She talks now.

Once they arrive in the town of Karabal, the Parmistanian hostility against Americans quickly turns into violence, finally giving Thomas a chance to put his only screen talent to use. The action’s not quite up to par with earlier efforts from director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon)—at several points, Cabot’s opponents fall over before he’s even raised his fist—but what it lacks in polish it makes up for in surreal flourishes, which culminate in the movie’s centerpiece: the Village of the Crazies.

For anyone wondering what Louis Malle’s Black Moon would be like if it had starred Jackie Chan, or what it would look like if Jordorowsky directed a Van Damme vehicle, this is it. The Village of the Crazies is the final stage of Parmistan’s game, a maze-like open air insane asylum. Clouse builds an uncanny tension around Cabot entering the village, which is populated by every color of crazy—from basic village idiot to deranged psychopath. What would be silly visual gags in any other movie feel like half-remembered moments from a nightmare. Pretty soon the tension boils over into a melee of the mentally disabled, who chase Cabot through every corner of the village, eventually surrounding him on the village pommel horse. Because what rural village doesn’t have a pommel horse? Never one to waste any opportunity to fuse gymnastics and karate, Thomas whips himself in circles around the horse, a tornado of kicks, fending off advancing crazies with undeniable agility.

The Village of the Crazies sequence lasts 15 minutes (over a sixth of the total running time), after which the movie sort of loses its breath. Cabot’s reunited with his dad for all of two minutes before someone shoots him with an arrow, so he has to carry his dad on horseback to the finish line. (My question: since his dad also technically completed the game, doesn’t that mean he gets a wish too?) After he defeats Zamir, he’s greeted by the Kahn and his daughter, who remains in love with Cabot for some indiscernible reason. A post-movie super informs us that the United States was able to build the Star Wars satellite system in Parmistan, in case anyone was worried that the Kahn might not follow through on his promise.

This detail, clearly an afterthought, only adds to Gymkata’s ramshackle unicorn charm. The movie aims for 1980s Enter the Dragon but ends up with something much harder to pin down, largely thanks to its star’s awkward presence. Thomas (who passed away in 2020) may not have been Clark Gable, but I can’t imagine Gymkata without him. Ironically, Thomas’ bland, white-bread persona is what gives the movie its flavor. That’s the thing about unicorn movies: their flaws always end up as assets, errors that only a fool would want to correct. There’s no improving a unicorn. It’s not supposed to exist in the first place; that it does feels like a minor miracle.


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