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Ziggy Stardust, Action Hero
by Scott Clevenger and Sheri Zollinger

The 1980s are remembered as an era when movies about muscular men with speech impediments signaled an end to the agonizing introspection of the Post-Vietnam era. In the films of Stallone and Swartzenegger, we saw the birth of a new breed of hero, a brawny man untroubled by malaise or moral relativism; a modern legend, with the physical strength and spiritual purity of a Hercules, and the accent of a shoemaking dwarf from the Black Forest.
     And yet, for every Stallone or Schwarzenegger, there was also a Kurt Thomas, or a Barry Bostwick--fey and elfin heroes who fiercely bitch-slapped their enemies on behalf of the American way. Judging by the action movies of the 1980s, it wasn't only testosterone and body grease that brought down the Berlin Wall-it was dance belts and bilevel haircuts, too, as can be seen in our analysis of two forgotten classics, "Gymkata," and "Megaforce."

Directed by: Robert Clouse
Written by: Charles Robert Carner, Dan Tyler Moore

     This movie was based on a book, The Terrible Game, and probably the filmmakers' worst misstep was changing the title to Gymkata. Not to say that The Terrible Game isn't a lousy title in itself, but we would have opted for a more modest adjustment, and called it simply, The Terrible Movie. (Actually, saying this cheeseball of a script was based on a novel is like saying that Count Chocula cereal is based on Le Fanu's Carmilla.)
     Most action heroes have traditionally been taken from the ranks of football players, weightlifters, and martial artists, but Gymkata boldly establishes a new paradigm of machismo: Gymnasts. (The plan had originally called for the ass-kicking hero to be a male figure skater, but apparently there was some sort of catfight at the audition.)
     The Terrible Game is actually The Most Dangerous Game, as designed by the President's Council on Physical Fitness. It requires the player to run around and climb a rope, and we're told that only a select few people in the world can meet this grueling challenge: either world-class gymnasts, like American champion Kurt Thomas, or 11-year olds who've passed sixth-grade gym.
     The movie opens with an angry white man--who is Kurt's dad, apparently playing on the Terrible Game Senior Tour--attempting to cross the rope bridge at Camp Snoopy. Richard Norton (who we know is evil because he's wearing Sonny Bono's sheepskin vest from Wild on the Beach) shoots an arrow into Kurt's dad, who falls to his death.
     Cut to the United States, where the Olympic Games are being held in a high-school auditorium.
     American champion Kurt Thomas dismounts the parallel bars, and is immediately recruited by the CIA to play The Game, which is held in Parmistan, a mountain kingdom ruled by "the Khan." Kurt will be trained by a variety of lethal experts with odd speech impediments--including Princess Ruballi, the Khan's daughter, who's mute, but cute, in a Tia Carrere kind of way. Even though she spends the first half of the film attempting to do grievous harm to his groin (knee it, stab it, rope-burn it, etc.), Ruballi eventually becomes Kurt's love interest, because she's the only person in the film who's shorter than he is.
     Kurt and the Princess white-water raft into Parmistan, where they're promptly attacked by Himalayan ninjas. Dressed head-to-toe in black--black Dr. Dentons and black Ku Klux Klan hoods, topped off with those red plastic hats from Devo's "Whip It!" video--they present a fearsome sight. Hopelessly outnumbered, Kurt unleashes the secret martial art of Gymkata, and manages to overcome the cadre of professional assassins using the deadly power of Olga Korbut's compulsory floor routine from the '72 Olympics.
     Once in the capital, Kurt and the other competitors meet the Khan, who is apparently a member of The Davy Crockett Hair Club for Men, and who explains the rules of "The Game." Basically, you run around and climb on various pieces of playground equipment until someone shoots you with an arrow. If Kurt wins, the U.S. will be allowed to build a "Star Wars" satellite-tracking station in Parmistan. If Kurt loses, he will be killed in the traditional way: shot with an arrow while playing the "Smack the Mole" game at a Chuck E. Cheese.
     Sheepskin takes the competitors on a horseback ride to watch the Smith Brothers climb ropes and get shot with arrows. Then Kurt visits the Renaissance Faire, where he sits at the banquet table in a velour bathrobe, eating grapes and staring sullenly at Sheepskin's naked pecs.
     The next morning, the Khan announces that Sheepskin will wed Princess Ruballi after the game, with a reception to follow at Medieval Times restaurant. The peasants respond by saying "Yock-mallah!" in unison, and listlessly waving some giant candy canes. Then the competitors are off and running.
     Sheepskin cheats by jumping the gun, and Kurt spends the next ten minutes wandering around a big cornfield, attempting to evade Sheepskin, the Himalayan ninjas, and various members of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox.
     Amazingly, Kurt makes it across the rope bridge to Tom Sawyer's Island without getting shot by an arrow, and enters The Village of the Damned, a planned community for the criminally insane. No one has ever escaped alive from this blood-soaked bedlam, and it is soon apparent why. In short order, Kurt is attacked by a man with a sickle, beaten to a pulp by a pack of Italian grandmothers, and mooned. Finally, the entire populace converges on Kurt, shrieking and waving various farm implements as they surround him in the village square. Fortunately, next to the communal well is the communal pommel horse. Leaping onto it, Kurt manages to kill the axe-wielding maniacs with a quick and deadly series of Magyar and Sivado cross-travel variations. The surviving villagers give Kurt a 9.2.
     The crazed peasants chase Kurt into a blind alley, forcing him to climb a sheer wall, but he's too much of a pussy to reach the top. Surprisingly, one of the Himalayan ninjas reaches down and pulls Kurt to safety. He then peels off the black mask and reveals . . . Kurt's dad! In a moment of joy, we discover that he wasn't killed in the fall, just maimed. Their tearful reunion is interrupted when Sheepskin shoots Kurt's dad with an arrow again. Springing into action, Kurt heroically grabs a horse and runs away.
     Sheepskin catches up to our fleeing hero and gives him a well-deserved thrashing. But Kurt cleverly goes into "rope-a-dope," outlasting his opponent until they get to the page in the script where it says he wins. Sheepskin takes a dive, and Kurt proudly rides back into town with Dad, who's been maimed some more, but is otherwise fine. Now, at last, everyone knows the truth: Sheepskin is a traitor, and Kurt's dad is Rasputin.
     Oh, and Kurt won The Game, all right. But if you ask me, he won ugly.

Directed by: Hal Needham
Written by: André E. Morgan, Albert S. Ruddy

     A profoundly personal film, wrenched deep from the soul of stuntmeister Hal Needham, Megaforce stars Barry Bostwick, Persis Khambatta, Edward Mulhare, and Henry Silva. (Suggested ad copy included, "Needham? There's plenty in this cast!")
     Based on a painting by Jackson Pollock, the plot of Megaforce goes something like this: Edward Mulhare (as "The General") and Persis Khambatta (as "The Major") are dropped off in the middle of the desert by a limousine. They remain there for a really long time while nothing happens, giving us plenty of opportunity to admire their wardrobe. Edward is sporting a beige polyester shirt, double-knit slacks, and the shortest tie this side of Oliver Hardy. Persis is wearing a gauzy, rust-colored gown that matches her rouge, and sitting on a rock with her legs spread at right angles like a truck driver. This attracts a huge rattlesnake, which decides to recreate the climax of North By Northwest, where the train carrying Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant goes into a tunnel. However, Persis and her scaly love interest are stopped just inches from turning this whole thing into a John Waters film by the intervention of Michael (Xanadu) Beck, who shoots the snake, then poses while Needham treats us to a long, loving, lingering look at his bun-hugging Sergio Valentes, his musky gray T-shirt advertising SKOAL smokeless tobacco, his Linda Blair-style shag haircut, and his straw cowboy hat. Clearly, this is Persis's new love interest, and she reacts accordingly: She sits on a rock, and spreads her legs. Edward is apparently aroused by this, because his tie suddenly gets longer.
     They all pile into a sport utility vehicle with a ThighMaster on the roof, and drive through the desert. Eventually, they stop to watch some guys on motorcycles pop wheelies and gun down a bunch of giant beach balls that were apparently going on an Outward Bound trip with Rover from "The Prisoner."
     One of the cyclists dismounts, and Persis meets her third love interest of the film. It's whippet-thin, frosted-and-tipped action hero Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick). Sporting a skin-tight gold lamé bodysuit and a sky-blue headband stolen from Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical" video, Barry introduces himself as the commander of an elite special-forces unit, despite the fact that he's dressed like a chorus boy from Starlight Express. He leads the party into his super-secret underground matte painting, where he changes the skintight bodysuit for a skintight velveteen cutaway coat and a sky-blue ascot the size of a lobster bib. Edward Mulhare explains that he needs an elite force of professional killers for a blitzkrieg attack on a fortified target, and he believes that Barry's cadre of highly trained Edwardian fops are just the men for the job. Barry consents, and gives a military briefing on the mission--the authenticity of which is compromised by the fact that he now looks like Barry Gibb in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the briefing consists of him and Michael Beck playing "Pong."
     Persis is persistent about wanting to go along on the attack, so Barry runs her through Megaforce basic training, which involves a trip to the Driver's Ed. simulator, and a rear-projected skydiving sequence, in which the two of them attempt to mate in mid-air like eagles until Barry prematurely deploys his chute, if you know what I mean. Persis passes the training with flying colors, which convinces her that Barry was right: She's just a dumb ol' girl, and she ought to stay home. As they tenderly part at the airport, Persis kisses her thumb and shows it to Barry, who kisses his thumb and shows it to her. This is as hot as the sex ever gets. As Persis makes goo-goo eyes at Barry's departing plane, Edward Mulhare swaggers on-camera and just stands there, giving us the opportunity to enjoy his enormous Italian sunglasses from the Sophia Loren Collection.
     Megaforce attacks the target, which consists of a stucco strip mall in the middle of the desert. While a red digital clock counts down in the corner of the screen, the killer motorcyclists ride through and blast all the buildings. Then they ride through again, and we watch all the same stuff blow up again. And again. And again.. Apparently, it's a Möbius-strip mall.
     Meanwhile, Mulhare conspires with some off-screen politicians to double-cross Megaforce.
     Trapped in the middle of the desert, Barry and his men have but one chance of escape: They must stage a Super Bowl Halftime Show. This plan works for some reason, and everybody reaches the rescue plane except for Barry. Fortunately, just as the aircraft lifts off, Barry's motorcycle turns into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, while Barry himself turns into a cross between Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz and Henry Thomas in E.T.
     Flushed with triumph, Barry is met at the airport by Persis, and they go off to spend a romantic evening together, slobbering over their own thumbs.
     Deep textual analysis of these films reveal a startling truth: Girls go for femmy guys. In the Rambo or Arnold movies, most everybody is dead by the end of the film, including the disposable female lead. But you'll note that in "Gymkata," Kurt won the hand the Princess Ruballi, while Barry won--if not the hand of Persis--at least her thumb. Ultimately, the message of Reagan-era action films seems to be two-fold: On the one hand, America must adopt a strong and uncompromising stance vis-a-vis our ideological opponents in the international arena. On the other hand, steroids will make you impotent, and short, effeminate men will get all the chicks.

Scott Clevenger and Sheri Zollinger specialize in the worst of pop culture. They are currently at work on a book proving that crappy movies are the window to the American soul.


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