Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has us thinking back on other movies about dangerous games, deadly competitions, and blood sports.
There is no competition more deadly than “The Game,” and no combat technique more powerful than Gymkata, described by one secret agent as “a subtle blend of the martial arts of the East and the fighting skills of the West.” In other words, it’s karate mixed with gymnastics, and it’s given a fittingly absurd showcase in 1985’s Gymkata, a true masterpiece of unintentional comedy. Robert Clouse’s B-movie classic concerns gymnastics great Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas), who’s tasked with traveling to the fictional Hindu Kush-area country of Parmistan—a Middle Ages-meets-fantasy-fiction land where men in fuzzy hats and furry vests reside in stone castles—to participate in a lethal obstacle-course competition whose winner will secure the rights to a geopolitically valuable site for a Star Wars satellite-monitoring station. Jonathan thus fights for the good ol’ U.S.A., although he also seeks victory in order to stop evil Zamir (Richard Norton) from staging a Parmistan coup and marrying Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani).
While that might sound crazy, words don’t do justice to the unadulterated insanity of Gymkata, which spends considerable time staging fight sequences in which Cabot fells ninjas with punches, karate chops, and a variety of (often completely unnecessary) cartwheels and somersaults. Fortuitously, he consistently finds bars on which to swing and, in a hilarious third-act skirmish, a wooden pommel horse randomly situated in a town square that he employs to kick numerous locals in the face. Cabot performs his feats of derring-do in inapt red sweaters and raised-collar jackets; his clothing, however, remains less ridiculous than his fellow competitor Gomez (John Barrett), who shows up to The Game in a pastel windbreaker. Director Clouse embellishes his material with copious slow-motion and weird sound effects (including some “boing!” noises). Yet in a film this fantastically surreal, perhaps nothing is stranger than the fact that Parmistan’s ruler Khan (Buck Kartalian)—despite being a native of an Afghanistan/Pakistan-region country, and having a daughter who seems to be Filipino—looks like the brother of Mel Brooks.