By: John M Jerva
This week, America lost a true Olympic Legend as famed gymnast and world champion Kurt Thomas sadly passed away at the young age of 64. Thomas shot to fame in the 70’s and 80’s by being the the first U.S. male gymnast to win a world championship gold medal. Unfortunately, he missed his shot at Olympic Gold when President Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games.
Riding on the success of Thomas, MGM tried to capitalize on his fame by featuring him as the lead in the 1985 martial arts action film wonderfully titled GYMKATA. The word comes from the fighting style Thomas infuses in the movie which is a combination of gymnastics and Karate an the results were gloriously cheesy as this had to be the guiltiest pleasure action film for me to come out of the 80’s. OK, it’s a toss up between this film and the awesomeness of Megaforce but in respect to the late, great Kurt Thomas, this one is the winner.
In the film, which takes its cues from the story The Most Dangerous Game, Thomas stars as Jonathon Cabot who is, you guessed it, a world champion athlete in gymnastics. Cabot’s father has disappeared while on a secret mission in Parmistan as he was trying to get a Star Wars Defense System (who remembers that?) set up as the country was the perfect spot for it.
Unfortunately, Cabot, Sr. had to participate in a 900 year old game where men are hunted by soldiers. If he won, he was granted one request which would have been the site for the government program. It’s rigged of course as no foreigner has ever won the game in its entire history.
Naturally Uncle Sam calls calling on Jonathan to take his father’s place and train hard to win the game and the request. This means honing his gymnastics skills into a lethal fighting skill which infuses Karate into it making that person the ultimate weapon. Yeah, I know, the cheese factor is through the roof on this one but the film is fun as hell.
Directed by Robert Clouse, who is also known for other classic films such as Battle Creek Brawl with Jackie Chan and the epic China O’Brien movies with Cynthia Rothrock, the film also featured martial arts dynamo and action Star Richard Norton who played the evil Zamir who is head of the country’s army. Norton also served as the movie’s stunt and fight coordinator and with his involvement, he brought some serious street fighting cred to the project.
GYMKATA was locked and loaded with numerous entertaining fight scenes and training montages, which included martial arts master Tadashi Yanashita, as Jonathon goes into action and dispatches dozens of assailants with his jaw dropping skills and ironically the word GYMKATA is never even mentioned in the film but hey that’s what it’s called because, you know, it’s the title of the movie.
Joining Cabot on his quest was the Princess of Parmistan played by Tetchie Agbayani who just happened to be a Playboy model in real life. She was most certainly eye candy for the male viewing audience but she did get a lot to do and even showed off some fighting skills of her own.
The highlight of the film is where Cabot and the other competitors must run through the “Town of Crazies” where Parmistsn sends their mentally ill to live out their lives away from the city. Of course, many are just harmlessly deranged but there are several dangerous inhabitants who are dangerous to the men who are essentially running for their lives.
The scene plays out in constant slow motion which can be annoying at times but the best part is where Cabot, surrounded by a horde of crazies must defend himself. Hilariously there just happens to be a pummel horse in the center so Cabot unleashes the Full Force of GYMKATA by utilizing the device and proceeding to kick the crap out of everyone in spectacular fashion.
The sound effects are the best part as every time Cabot landss devastating blow, it sounds like lasers going off. The scene is so funny due to the positioning of a horse but it still serves up some ultimate guilty pleasure fun.
Cabot eventually squares off against Zamir towards the finale and it does satisfy as both men get to execute some impressive lethal moves. Cabot breaks out the moves one last time and overpowers Zamir who eventually becomes overpowered but it was nice to see them use Norton and his physical prowess.
Another high note to point out is the score by Alfie Kabiljo who is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination but delivers an impactful 80’s action score that has a little epic sounding quality to it. The music just has that adventurous 80’s action element to it and it is fun to listen to even to this day.
All in all, the 80’s were a magical time for action films snd GYMKATA come out smack dab in the middle of the decade and made no excuses for the type of film it was. Now it is a bona fide cult classic and Thomas will always be remembered for his achievements in real life but for us he will always be remembered as Jonathon Cabot who was the master of a new form of combat. Too bad there was never a follow up as I would have loved to see Thomas return in another action packed espionage mission where he hit the chance to unleash his skills once more.
Thankfully, we have this gem to revisit every so often and then you are feeling nostalgic, put this one in your DVD player or VHS if you have it and watch Thomas unleash the “skill of gymnastics and the kill of Karate!” GYMKATA is definitely the greatest guilty pleasure action film of the 80’s and it fully captures the mood and feel of that wonderful and thrilling era when action movies went out on a limb. Even though this was his only foray into action, Kurt Thomas was hardly a one hit wonder.
Rest In Peace Mr. Thomas and our condolences go out to his family.
Relive the greatest scene from the film where Cabot takes on an entire village and pummels the baddies with the true force of GYMKATA!!!