So Bad It’s Good: The Unintentionally Hilarious ’80s Kung-Fu/Gymnastics Mashup ‘Gymkata’

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you May’s edition of our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: the markedly cheap and unintentionally hilarious karate/gymnastics mash-up Gymkata.

It’s easy, from this 30-years-later vantage point, to underestimate how huge ninjas were in the ‘80s. I know some of you were just little kids or not even born yet (dammit), but you’ve gotta trust me on this: ninjas were everywhere. The ninja was a cultural touchstone, appearing on television, in magazines, and on your porch at Halloween. But most of all, ninjas were in movies — especially a certain kind of lowish-budget action/exploitation movie, where you could get an instant, invaluable “cool” reaction from a white suburban preteen by putting your random fighting extras into the sleek (yet easy to manufacture!) uniform of the ninja, and then putting that word in your title.

But it didn’t stop with mere ninja-sploitation movies like Enter the Ninja and American Ninja (big moneymakers for the folks at Cannon Films, those); they also had to mate the ninja movie with other genres and would-be fads, and that’s where the real laughs began. In 1984, Cannon tried to fuse the ninja movie with the Exorcist rip-off — and trust me, that was an entire subgenre of its own — and came up with the notorious Ninja III: The Domination (which we should really put a pin in for a future installment). In 1987, actor/director/motivational speaker Y.K. Kim mashed up the ninja movie with the rock musical to create the immortal Miami Connection. And 30 years ago — 30 years ago this very month, in fact — Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones director Robert Clouse gave us (and gave is the only word for a gift like this) Gymkata, which imagines a new fighting style that combines martial arts and… gymnastics.

This really happened in Hollywood in the 1980s, which gives you some idea of exactly how much cocaine was flowing through that place back then.

The picture’s inherent multiple personality disorder is clear from its opening sequence, with intercuts tight close-ups of a gymnast bar with a bunch of (white) samurai hunting some random guy down. (Seriously, they make so little sense together, I wondered if there’d been some sort of disc mastering error.) The leader of the gang is our villain — a bearded, rat-tailed, earring-wearing Kenny Loggins clone. Once this befuddling interpolation is complete, we meet our hero. Jonathan Cabot is a champion gymnast, played by champion gymnast Kurt Thomas, who, as an actor, is a really impressive champion gymnast.

The plot: Cabot is enlisted by the SIA (the “Special” Intelligence Agency) to participate in “The Game,” a dangerous endurance test from which there can be only one survivor. (Gymkata is kinda like The Hunger Games, except it’s not very good.) The survivor gets a single wish of their choice, and the SIA wants to use this genie-based reward system to get a “Star Wars” nuclear monitoring station installed in the fictional country where “The Game” is played; the country is called Parmistan, but I kept hearing the rather on-the-nose moniker of “Commie-stan.” (The fact that we actually floated a defense system that made sense in a movie like Gymkata says a lot about the Reagan administration, BUT I DIGRESS.) And thus our gymnast/spy must also become a deadly fighter, via your customary ‘80s training sequence — complete with a wise Asian trainer who has a giant eagle by his side, and a beautiful (and mostly dialogue-free) Parmistanian princess who introduces herself to him by snapping a rope and tying him up. (Fifty Shades of Gymkata?)

We get our first look at his gymkata — a word which, by the way, is never uttered in the movie, but I suggest purring “Gymakata” after each sick fight-scene hit — technique in an odd sequence at his infiltration point, which (based on the abundance of blue-eyed white guys in turbans and other “Arabian” dress) is apparently the world-famous Cleveland bazaar. And here’s where we see the real trouble with Gymkata, as a movie and a concept: it’s utterly ridiculous, because you shouldn’t try to do gymnastics in a fight scene, as it will render that fight scene hilarious. And y’know what’s even more hilarious? When they have to work gymnastic props into conventional action sequences, which is how we end up with a pre-rosined swinging bar hanging across a village alleyway. How convenient!

Anyway, after kicking everybody’s ass there, embarking on an endless chase that’s not the least bit exciting in spite of an abundance of running and gunfire and cars, and going on an out-of-nowhere whitewater rafting expedition (I dunno, maybe it was a team-building exercise?), our hero and his mostly mute princess arrive in Commie-stan Parmistan, which is apparently the land where no dentist ever trod. After a big feast sequence which looks like a Ren Faire gone awry (and is presided over by the king of the land, a dead ringer for Harry Reems), they embark on “The Game,” a gory obstacle course where such bland challenges as rope bridges and corn fields are given extra urgency by ninjas trying to kill them. But there are also other ninjas who just stand around at each stop holding up flags like some sort of stock car flagman, which seems like about the lamest job you can get as a ninja. (Do they ever get the urge to just break ranks and start killing people too? Did it ever occur to one of the killer ninjas that pretending to be a flagman ninja is a perfect way to catch your prey unawares? I spent a lot of the movie thinking about these guys.)

What’s most puzzling about Gymkata is how toothless it is, particularly considering how gory its ninja movie brethren tended to be. It’s rated R, but they were clearly going for a PG-13; there’s no nudity from Tetchie Agbayani, the Playboy playmate who plays the princess (she was apparently hired for her acting chops!), and the gunplay is all of the bloodless, A-Team variety. Then again, maybe they just didn’t have the money for a squib budget; the production is laughably rinky-dink, its Yugoslavian shoot clearly inspired by money rather than aesthetics.

But Gymkata is also funny in your typical ‘80s action movie manner: the wildly overdone foley work (several punches sound weirdly like door slams), the Cold War politics, the gloriously inept acting, and the ever-popular fighting scenes where our hero takes on a whole gang of baddies, who patiently and considerately wait their turn to go one at a time, rather than overtaking him all at once (which would pretty much end the brawl). This all comes to a head at the end of the film, when he somehow takes on the entire village, dozens of people (Gymkata is kinda like Kill Bill, except it’s not very good), with the help of — I’m not making this up — a stone pommel horse located right in the middle of the town square. As you watch our gymnast hero spinning around and kicking out a procession of random bad guys who might as well’ve lined up and taken a number, deli-style, it’s a fine time to remember that good action moviemaking is harder than it looks. And so, I’m guessing, is good gymnastics.

Gymkata is available via Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. Special thanks to fellow bad movie aficionados Mac and Brenda Welch.