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April 23rd, 2014 AP KRYZA | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

AP Film Studies: Gym-Class Hero

Gymkata and the exile of athletes from action flicks.

screen_gymkata_4025POMMEL HORSIN’ AROUND: Kurt Thomas vs. Parmistan. - Image courtesy of MGM
     
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There was a time when Earth’s mightiest heroes weren’t pretty-boy actors decked out in capes and tights, reliant on computer effects to show off their powers. But, like Batman after taking the fall for the murder of Harvey Dent, these real-life superheroes have retreated from the spotlight.

ILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall
I’m talking, of course, about professional athletes who crossed over from real life into the fantasy world of cinema. For a while, we lived in a decades-spanning golden age of athletes-turned-action stars. Fullback Jim Brown joined The Dirty Dozen and became a blaxploitation icon. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar battled Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Wilt Chamberlain transformed into a killing machine in Conan the Destroyer. Michael Jordan fought for personal dignity in Space Jam. Dennis Rodman sidekicked for Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team before striking out on his own in Simon Sez. Even Howie Long and his buzzcut went all “Die Hard in a forest fire” with Firestorm.

But perhaps the greatest athlete-driven action flick was 1985’s Kurt Thomas vehicle Gymkata, the victim of this month’s Hecklevision (Hollywood Theatre, 9:30 pm Friday, April 25).

For those not up on their Cold War-era gymnastics, Thomas was a world champion poised to dominate the 1980 Olympics…until the U.S. boycotted the games over the Soviet war in Afghanistan (hindsight, you are glorious). That didn’t stop Thomas from taking gymnastics to the next level, though, with Gymkata, a martial arts film in which he’s pitted against hordes of combatants in the fictional country of Parmistan. It’s a land conveniently littered with pommel horses and crossbars, and guarded by soldiers who are lulled into submission by the sight of a somersaulting, unitarded man—who promptly punches them in the face.

Gymkata, a commercial and critical failure that went on to achieve cult status, is a prime example of the kinds of risks Hollywood doesn’t take anymore, and should serve as inspiration for current-day athletes vying for silver-screen glory.

Who wouldn’t want to watch a film in which Robin Lopez is sucked through a portal, winds up in medieval times and slays a dragon by slam-dunking a sacred orb in its mouth? Wouldn’t Metta World Peace be perfect for an update of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down, in which the former Ron Artest snaps and goes on a rampage because somebody told him he had a bad haircut? Why hasn’t anyone cast Paddy Mills in a dystopian Outback car-chase film, or Ndamukong Suh as a rage-fueled superhero whose powers include neck-stomping (The Ncredible Hulk)?

The answer is simple. These movies would  suck. Just look at Gymkata. But then again, just look at Gymkata…it’s incredible. Twenty years from now, how will we explain to our children that they missed the chance to see Richard Sherman and Eugene Levy team up for a buddy-cop flick?


Also Showing: 

  • Reel Feminism presents Siren Spirits, a quartet of films focusing on death, none of which, sadly, is an action epic in which Lisa Leslie and Brandi Chastain take down a sadistic oil tycoon. Clinton Street Theater. 7 pm Wednesday, April 23.
  • Yes, there are still plans for a Top Gun sequel. No, it won’t find Maverick and Ice Man raising a family. Because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we assume. Laurelhurst Theater. April 25-May 1.
  • Wanna watch two dudes wait for inevitable death while locked in a Nazi war prison? 1977’s The Ascent is the cure for your springtime blues. 5th Avenue Cinema. 7:30 pm Friday, April 25.
  • But seriously, 5th Avenue: First Nazi prisons, then Come and See, a war drama about a young man who returns to his Soviet village only to find pretty much everything, including innocence, dead. Is a documentary about puppy euthanasia up next week?! (Actually, Come and See is great, harrowing and overlooked.) 5th Avenue Cinema. April 25-27.
  • Portland band Subterranean Howl’s new album is based on the bizarro 1928 Lon Chaney freakout West of Zanzibar, and the band will debut a live score during a screening of the silent oddity. Clinton Street Theater. 8 pm Friday, April 25.
  • Friends of Trees screens the 1926 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Black Pirate at a fundraiser that’s also a pirate-themed party, because apparently that still happens. Clinton Street Theater. 7 pm Saturday, April 26.
  • The Hollywood gets the time-machine treatment with The Wizard of Oz. Saturday features a live organ prelude and vintage newsreels. Hollywood Theatre. 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, April 26-27.
  • There was a time when “Italian horror” meant more than a nightmare about Roberto Benigni crawling over your chair. This double feature—Lucio Fulci’s surrealist The Gates of Hell and the ultra-violent Burial Ground: Night of Terror—celebrates the country’s cinematic tradition of gut-ripping monsters and cheesy synth scores. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, April 29.
 
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