Mullets of Fury
When it comes to filming dudes getting kicked in the face, director Robert Clouse totally dominates, having introduced both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan to the U.S. with, respectively, 1973's Enter the Dragon and 1980's The Big Brawl. Throw in 1974's blaxploitation headcracker classic Black Belt Jones, and Clouse's status as the godfather of American chopsocky seems unquestioned. By 1985, however, the U.S. scene had stagnated, as Chan returned to Hong Kong and Lee's tragic demise resulted in a series of pallid imitations starring the likes of Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lei, and, of course, Bruce Liang. Clearly, something new was needed. Instead of resting on his laurels, Clouse responded with a vengeance, envisioning a new refinement of the form, one that blended the thrill of gymnastics with, yes, the kill of karate. The star? Olympic gold medalist Kurt Thomas. The film? Gymkata. Now available on DVD, Clouse's final masterwork can finally reach the audience it so richly deserves. Note: The preceding sentence is not meant to be sarcastic.
The diminutive, fiercely mulleted Thomas is Jonathan Cabot, an Olympic medalist mourning the disappearance of his secret-agent father. After undergoing training in the deadly, goofy arts, Cabot is enlisted by the government to travel to the fictitious country of Parmistan, in the hopes of convincing it to install a Star Wars defense monitoring system. In order to curry favor with the bloodthirsty Khan, however, he must first conquer The Game, a brutal endurance test that culminates in a walled-off city of heavily armed mental patients. Thankfully, in anticipation of Thomas's unique gymkata talents, the local architects saw fit to place a pommel horse in the town square.
A brief plot description can only scratch the surface of the film's highlights, which include Thomas's hilariously unsmooth wooing of Parmistan's mysteriously Asian princess, a bulging henchman with the mega-awesome name of Tharg, and the tendency of all the other Game participants to wear bad toupees and mustardy Members Only jackets. (Personal favorite: the way that the exact same damn sound effect gets recycled for at least 85 percent of the film's various punches, kicks, falls, and door slams.) Still, Gymkata would most likely place somewhere on the lower tiers of endearing badness—the sort of film where one can safely leave the room for a beer/bong/can trip at random intervals—were it not for the increasingly berserk depiction of Parmistan itself, as a melting pot of surreal foreign stereotypes that resembles the fever dream of a whacked-out Fellini. (Okay, an even more whacked-out than usual Fellini.) Through Clouse's admirably deadpan lens, America's Big Brother is depicted as a backward bizarro world where ninjas wear fezzes and/or Viking helmets, the streets are awash with mimes clad in argyle sweater vests, and the mighty Khan himself resembles an unholy cross between a Yiddish troll doll and '70s porn icon Harry Reems. Faced with this assortment of Euro yahoos, even Borat might plotz.