“A new kind of martial arts combat! The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate.”
After his father is shot in the back with an arrow and falls hundreds of feet to his death while participating in Parmistan’s deadly “Game”, world renowned gymnast Johnathan Cabot agrees to take his place at the request of the U. S. government. Following a grueling two month training montage, Johnathan travels first to the city of Karabal where he is immediately set upon by a group of communist double agents whom he easily overcomes with his newly developed Gymkata skills and a clothesline that looks suspiciously like a high bar. From there, Cabot proceeds to Parmistan, where it doesn’t take him long to realize The Game is being manipulated by the eeevil warlord Zamir as part of an upcoming coup to dethrone the country’s khan. Having become intimately involved with the country’s princess during those moments of his training where she wasn’t trying to stab him, Johnathan feels compelled to save the Parmistanian khan as well as completing his secret mission. All of this is placed on the backburner, however, when The Game begins and most of the contestants are quickly hunted down and killed by Zamir and his men. In no time at all, only Cabot and the vicious Thorg are left to face The Game’s final challenge, the dreaded Village of the Crazies. All seems lost as the villagers dispatch Thorg and swarm Cabot in numbers too overwhelming for even his amazing gymkata skills. Fortunately, a last minute rescue arrives in the form of Johnathan’s father(!), who pulls his son to safety. Unfortunately, the reunion is short lived as Zamir arrives and cruelly shoots the elder Cabot in the back with an arrow (again) and he dies (again), leaving an exhausted and grief stricken Johnathan to face Zamir alone, mano-a-mano. Meanwhile, back at the castle, the princess leads the peasants in an assault on Zamir’s rebels, but will it come too late to save Johnathan from the same fate…, um, fates as his father?
In Season 11 of The Simpsons, the Machiavellian Montgomery Burns visits the doctor expecting a clean bill of health, only to learn that he is, in fact, the sickest individual on the face of the planet, kept alive only by a condition known as "Three Stooges Syndrome". This extremely rare form of homeostasis is created by the presence of every disease known to mankind (and a few unknown ones, too) trying to invade the human body simultaneously, yet inadvertently cancelling each other out as they, much like The Three Stooges, get jammed in the body’s doorway while trying to enter at the same time. One wrong twitch and the whole thing could fall apart, proving instantly fatal, but as long as the delicate balance is maintained, all remains well. Relatively speaking. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
My friends, if ever there were a movie which could be said to have “Three Stooges Syndrome”, it is Gymkata. Released in 1985, Gymkata tried its best to cram in every single element it could think of in order to ensure it at least a modicum of box office success with the typical 80s moviegoer. It had ninjas, commie spies, a superstar athlete, a hot foreign chick, a training montage, a surreal horror sequence, you name it. And yet, no matter how crowd pleasing the plot device, Gymkata miraculously managed to bungle the premise every single time. Every. Single. Time. There’s not one scene which isn’t an unmitigated cinematic disaster. It’s so bad that if you were to take even one scene from Gymkata and splice it into another movie, it would instantly kill that movie.
This is not mere hyperbole. If I had reams of paper to write them down on, I could only scratch the surface of the multitude of inanities found in Gymkata. For brevity’s sake, however, I’ll only list a few.
(1) After their best agent is killed, the U. S. doesn’t send in their 2nd best agent, or a special-ops guy, or a navy seal, or an undercover cop, or even a really tough Eagle Scout. Instead, they send in the guy’s mullet wearing teenage son, a gymnast, who receives a total of two whole months of martial arts training to prepare for a game known to have killed every participant. And the word training is used lightly as the process seems to consist almost entirely of the kid walking up a flight of stairs on his hands while the camera lingers, and I mean lingers, on his ultra tight gym shorts. (All I’m saying is that if you really need to know whether or not Kurt Thomas is circumcised, but you don’t really want to see him naked in order to find out, then this is the film for you.)
(2) The khan of Parmistan, a country populated by East Europeans dressed in leftover wardrobe from Fiddler On The Roof, is played by the couldn’t-look-more-American Detroit native Buck Kartalian who continuously bellows “Yamkallah!” (whatever that means) while his daughter, Phillipine born Playboy model Tetchie Agbayani (of whom one character inexplicably declares, “Don’t worry, her mother is Indonesian.”), and a gaggle of very Caucasian ninjas look on. Admittedly, while this kind of It’s-A-Small-World style of casting might be interesting in some other context, it just doesn’t feel quite right for the citizens of Parmistan, a country so isolated from the rest of the world that it can only be reached by white water rafting.
(3) For generations, people from around the globe have travelled (by white water rafting) to participate in a contest from which no one has ever emerged alive for no other stated reason than that the khan has promised to grant the winner a single wish which can be used to ask for anything, ANYTHING, the winner desires. Apparently every contestant believes the khan is in a position to grant such a wish despite the fact that he rules over a country which has no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and everybody dresses in leftover wardrobe from Fiddler On The Roof.
(4) The Village of the Crazies. So large is that segment of the population of Parmistan who are off their rockers that it became necessary to dump them inside a walled town of their very own with food, livestock, and LOTS AND LOTS OF SHARP WEAPONS! Because there’s nothing a whole town of unsupervised lunatics needs more than lots and lots of sharp weapons. Well, except for maybe a pommel horse. And I’m not talking about one of those centuries old four-legged pommel horses used to train soldiers in the fine art of riding. I mean a standard Olympic competition size pommel horse made of concrete sitting right smack dab in the middle of town. And thank God it’s there, because by sheer coincidence, it’s the very thing an expert in the art of Gymkata needs to help him kick the snot out of every man and woman in the village until help can arrive.
It would be easy to just keep going, but why bother? If the pommel horse scene isn’t enough to convince a person that this movie is diseased, then nothing else is going to. This film should have been declared dead and then buried before its release date ever rolled around. And yet, somehow, the sheer volume of cinematic blunders in Gymkata miraculously hold each other in check for a full 90 minutes, creating a tenuous balance which transforms the film into something… something… not good, no, not even close… but something mesmerizing, something almost transcendent for the majority of dedicated B-Movie fans. So singular is the experience of watching this movie that when MGM conducted an online poll in 2006 to determine their next round of DVD releases, genre fanatics flooded the company with votes for Gymkata, with the end result being that one of the worst movies ever made won out over films made by the likes of John Frankenheimer, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma. Yikes! Or better yet, Yamkallah! (whatever that means).
The affection so many bad-movie lovers hold for Gymkata may seem puzzling to the uninitiated (probably as puzzling as the fact that there are bad-movie lovers to begin with), but the answer is really quite simple and summed up quite elegantly in Roger Ebert’s brief review of Gymkata found in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. “This is one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve seen in a while” Ebert wrote, “but make of this what you will. I heard more genuine laughter during the screening than at three or four so-called comedies I’ve seen lately.” And that’s the key. You see, despite the fact that it fails miserably in the craft of movie making, Gymkata ultimately succeeds in the one mission a film like this should have. It’s entertaining.
Now of course, Gymkata doesn’t arrive at that goal the way the people involved in making it probably thought (hoped? prayed?) it would, and their own ineptitude in producing the thing came oh so close to derailing it every step of the way, but in the end, it gets to where it needs to. It’s a near miracle. And I say that, because, as someone who watches an inordinate amount of bad cinema, I can attest to the fact that too many movies (good, bad, or otherwise)never accomplish the simple mission of being enjoyable. The people involved are rarely able to overcome their own shortcomings to get the job done. But I suppose that’s how it is with a lot of things. Really, about the only group that comes to mind who always seem to fulfill their mission, despite the sheer volume of bunglers involved in the undertaking, is… the Church.
Admittedly, the “mission statement” for Christians is a bit tougher to follow than the one for making an entertaining movie. Along with the Great Commission to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations” and the individual call “to seek [God], to know him, to love him with all his strength”, the Catechism also tells us that Christians are "called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit - indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born - all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ... And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives." So basically, we’re expected to participate in the salvation of the world. Yikes! Or Yamkallah! Whatever. Any way you look at it, it’s a pretty lofty goal Christians are called on to achieve. And the problem is, assuming the Church is full of people like me, the efforts to accomplish that goal are more often than not going to look pretty sloppy and bad. And a lot of times, much like with so many movies. they’re not going to be entertaining, but instead actually painful to watch play out.
That’s why it should come as no shock to us Christians to find so many people put off by our actions when we make a mess of the Christian message. In the recent Summer 2009 issue of Filmfax magazine, renowned fantasy artist Greg Hildebrandt, who describes his own current beliefs as a kind of spiritual agnosticism, discusses his time spent in the employ of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. In the article Hildebrandt explains how Bishop Sheen sent him to do documentary work in impoverished nations, and how the conditions he saw there seemed so at odds with the extravagant way some of the hierarchy of the institutional Church lived back home. In effect, the experience increased his faith in God, but destroyed it in what he saw as a corrupt organized religion. And yet when asked, he absolutely believes that Sheen was a true man of God and has participated in the efforts to have him canonized a Saint of the Church. To his credit, the interviewer Dwayne Epstein presses Hildebrandt gently and asks, “Had you considered the fact that since it was Bishop Sheen opening your eyes to this, he was part of that establishment?” And to his credit, the artist doesn’t exactly dodge the question, but his answer that “Absolutely. It’s a two-edged sword, a yin/yang that all fits together.” only scrapes the surface of one of the biggest paradoxes in Christianity; that while the people who make up the Church, much like the makers of Gymkata, miraculously manage to bungle the premise almost every single time, when all is said and done, a Church made up of sinners still manages to produce Saints to fulfill its primary missions again and again and again.
Look, we know we’re doofuses, okay? Even the Catechism is quick to admit that “on her pilgrimage, the Church has experienced the "discrepancy existing between the message she proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted.” We Christians are well aware that we don’t deserve to benefit from something so beautiful as God’s plan, much less be allowed to participate in it. But as G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book Heretics, “The truth is that there are no things for which men will make such herculean efforts as the things of which they know they are unworthy. There never was a man in love who did not declare that, if he strained every nerve to breaking, he was going to have his desire. And there never was a man in love who did not declare also that he ought not to have it. The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled. For with the removal of all question of merit or payment, the soul is suddenly released for incredible voyages. If we ask a sane man how much he merits, his mind shrinks instinctively and instantaneously. It is doubtful whether he merits six feet of earth. But if you ask him what he can conquer--he can conquer the stars.”
Star Conquerors. You know, I like that. It’d make a great B-movie title. (Although odds are that it would make a lousy movie. Which I would watch. And then tell you all about it.) Good old G. K., with his well-documented love for penny dreadfuls, I kind of think he might like it too. And just maybe, he might have appreciated Gymkata as well, recognizing in it a kindred spirit to the Christian’s fumbling, bumbling success. Or maybe not. But even if he didn’t, then at least, smart guy that Mr. Chesterton was, he might have been able to explain to me what the heck that pommel horse thing was all about.
Oddly enough, despite the length of screen time devoted to the development of Thomas’ ability to walk up a flight of stairs on his hands during the first act of the film, it plays absolutely no role in the game once he reaches Parmistan. Praise be to God, however, that neither does his form fitting gym shorts. Can I get an amen? Or at least a Yamkallah? Whatever that means.