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
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
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
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.