TCM Underground: Never Too Young to Die (1986) and Gymkata (1985)

Never Too Young to Die (1986)

If you’ve ever wanted to see John Stamos share a sex scene with Vanity (the Prince protege) in a movie where Gene Simmons plays a hermaphroditic villain, with lots of chases, gunfights and silliness, you are in luck, because Never Too Young to Die exists and will fill that void in your heart you never knew existed.

John Stamos plays Lance Stargrove, son of Drew Stargrove–a sort of low-rent James Bond, played by the lowest rent James Bond of them all, George Lazenby himself.  When Dad goes and gets himself killed while trying to save Los Angeles’s water supply from being poisoned by Velvet Von Ragner (Gene Simmons), it’s up to Lance to save the day.  Lance, as a character, is one who’s supposed to be walking a fine line between honor and being relatable to an audience, but when we first meet him, he’s using his friend Cliff, a sort of technological genius, to help him cheat on a test.  If Never Too Young to Die is a high-octane and much stupider version of a James Bond movie, then Cliff is this movie’s version of Q, presenting Lance with a tracking device in gum, unprovoked, and we just know he’s going to need it later.

Lance is dragged into a world of intrigue and spy games, using his skills as a gymnast to fight off the bad guys as he comes into contact with Danja (Vanity), who knew Lance’s father better than anyone.  She convinces Lance that his dad was a great guy and he needs to continue his legacy of saving the world.

Von Ragner’s plan is to poison the city and she (I’m going to go with “she” as the preferred pronoun in this case) doesn’t seem to have much motivation beyond that.  She wants to poison the city and she’s going to do whatever it takes to make that happen.  Stargrove, Sr. has a much-needed disc in order for Von Ragner to open the floodgates and release the poison and she sends wave after wave of henchman to see to it that the city dies.  There’s talk of money and jewelry, but how she plans to actually collect these things when everyone is dead is never really touched upon.  I suppose it doesn’t matter too much in a movie like this, who exists solely for action and guilty-pleasure laughs, like when Von Ragner presents the captured Lance and Danja to her post-apocalyptic gang that seems misplaced from a Mad Max ripoff and says, “Orgasm, you turdy revelers.”

Never Too Young to Die is one of those movies that moves ahead, logic between two scenes be damned.  As long as it’s moving, as long as things are happening, as long as there’s excitement, who cares?  In one scene that requires a dumptruck filled with suspended disbelief, Lance chases down Danja on his little Yamaha dirtbike while Danja is driving a Corvette.  Somehow, Lance keeps up.  There’s an altercation, some gunshots are fired, some bad guys are taken out, and Lance and Danja are both apprehended.  Danja is taken to a villainous lair.  Lance, however, wakes up in his dad’s house for some reason and easily escapes, after using gymnastics to fight his way past a couple of goons and gets to say, “Name’s not ‘Scumbag.’  It’s Stargrove.  Lance Stargrove.”

In many ways, Never Too Young to Die reminds me of watching the USA Network when I was a kid, catching the tail end of American Ninja movies, although Never Too Young to Die is much better.  It’s a hard thing to get right, a movie like this, and it requires a lot to keep it from slipping into doldrums.  It requires some great lines, like when a cross-dressing waitress takes an instant liking to Lance and tells Danja that if she doesn’t treat him right, she’ll claw her fuckin’ eyes out, and flashes her long, painted fingernails.  And then there’s the showdown between Lance and Von Ragner where Gene Simmons practically cackles out the best Frank N Furter impression he can muster and says, “Just remember, I’m both man and woman.  I’m better than you!”

All of this in a movie where Robert Englund also appears as the bad guy’s sidekick.

Gymkata (1985)

I’m going to be honest:  After watching Never Too Young to Die, I was prepared for the most bitter disappointment to come up next.  I expected one movie of this double feature to rock while the other one stunk.  Luckily for me, Gymkata is another absurd piece of badassedry.  It’s not quite as zany as its Underground predecessor, but it has its own charms.

Real-life gymnast and Olympic athlete Kurt Thomas and his mighty mullet stars as Jonathan Cabot, tasked by the U.S. government to participate in something called “The Game.”  The Game is deadly endurance test in a fictional country known as Parmistan and the winner of said game is granted a wish by the King of Parmistan, and the United States wants to use that wish to install a satellite relay for the Star Wars defense system.  That’s seriously the plan:  Win an obstacle course against ninjas shooting arrows at you for worldwide security and diplomacy.  For half a moment Cabot is kind of like, “Why don’t we just call in the military?” and the person training him for the Game is like, “Nah, we don’t do that anymore.”

So, about five minutes in, Cabot starts a training montage that usually happens at the end of the second act for most movies like this.  We have no emotional attachment to this person that we see making minor improvements, getting better and better at something, and then finally mastering the physicality of… gymnastic martial arts?  Not a lot is explained, really, but Cabot does a lot of back flips, particularly in a scene where he’s conversing with the Princess of Parmistan.  I swear, he does about five flips, using those flips to suffice as conversation.

After his training is complete, Cabot is off to Karabal, on the Caspian Sea for safe entry to Parmistan.  We hear it referred to as such, in full, twice, and then a title card appears over the city, “Karabal, on the Caspian Sea,” in full once more, just to make sure the viewer knows where the hero is.

Gymkata is directed by Robert Clouse, who also directed Enter the Dragon, another martial arts movie centered around a seemingly impossible-to-win game.  I mean, make no mistake, Gymkata is a terrible movie, but Robert Clouse isn’t necessarily a terrible director, so he wrings some genuine tension from some scenes, one in particular where Cabot is chasing after an assassin and finds that a man who was supposed to be protecting him is dead.  Clouse utilizes sound effects and isolating wide angles to really help you feel the fear that Cabot is feeling at that moment.  It’s just that it follows about thirty seconds after a brilliant piece of unintentional humor where a man asks Cabot if he’s American, and upon hearing the affirmative, throws water in Cabot’s face.  Cabot’s bodyguard keeps him from violently retaliating, reassuring him, telling him to stay calm, that it doesn’t help anything to–ah!  And then the bodyguard gets a goddamn arrow through the chest while talking about cooler heads prevailing and drops dead.

The villain, Zamir, has his own plans for the Game and intends to have everyone killed so that he can marry the princess and rule Parmistan.  He tries to kill Cabot during this trial, but really lazily and sloppily.  For instance, Cabot and another participant are climbing up a rope and Zamir and his ninjas kill the dude next to Cabot with arrows.  But for Cabot himself, they light his rope on fire.  I mean, fire doesn’t move that fast, so by the time the fire reaches the top, Cabot is already off to the next event.

When Cabot reaches the stage of the trial called “Village of Crazies” or as it’s also referred to the “Village of the Damned” the film switches gears to a wordless, hallucinogenic Alejandro Jodorowsky movie, where Cabot must pass through a city filled with violent, insane people who are trying to kill him.  An entire village of violently mad people sounds awful hard to maintain and unlikely.  It seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  But it’s there that Cabot discovers a makeshift pommel horse from an object that never could have been anything other than a pommel horse and uses it to kick the ass of dozens of mentally ill people that desperately need help.

Both movies tonight were a lot of fun and made this one of my favorite weeks of TCM Underground ever.  Also the King of Parmistan looks like Larry David in disguise.


Next Week: A classic Blaxploitation double feature with The Mack and Superfly.