Gleaming the Cube (1989)
Director: Graeme Clifford
Writers: Michael Tolkin
Starring: Christian Slater, Steven Bauer and Min Luong

The Plot: Bryan Kelly (Christian Slater) is a young teen who cares for very little in the world outside of his daily doses of skateboarding, punk rock music and rebellion from all of society. His adopted Vietnamese brother Vinh Kelly (Art Chudabala) is the flip side to that coin, as he is everything that a parent could dream to have. He does well in school, he behaves, shows respect and doesn’t try to rebel against everything his parents stand for. When Vinh discovers some odd numbers shifting around on the books at the local shop he works for, he begins to investigate. His boss, Colonel Trac (Le Tuan) apparently has something else going on behind closed doors, and when Vinh gets close to the truth he is abducted and tortured by Trac’s business associates. When the torture goes a bit too far, young Vinh is left dead by strangulation. Trac and his men make the death look like a suicide, but his brother Bryan isn’t so sure. Distraught over the death of Vinh, he begins to question his own senseless rebellion and begins to investigate what exactly happened to his brother.

The Review
Sometimes a film comes along that perfectly captures the heights of a very specific subculture… but then multiplies those heights, and then pads out the rest of the movie with a fairly generic plotline that allows for things to enter into the world of the criminally absurd. While I won’t stake my claim that Gleaming the Cube is anything other than an over-exaggeration of skateboarding culture during the eighties, it ostensibly sets itself up as both a philosophical and action packed mix of teen-angst melodrama with the groovy attitudes of skateboarding videos from the time. The end mixture is something that deserves its place in any time capsule examination of this time and culture. Featuring an excellent cast of supporting actors, Gleaming the Cube is an almost star-studded examination of the world of late eighties skateboarding… only with a murder mystery plotline and a love story subplot that is mildly awkward. A film that doesn’t stand out on its own merits as a thrilling or new piece of cinema, the accolades that I would like to place upon it are for the entertainment it delivers and the utterly strange world that our film seems to take place in. A toned down version of Prayer of the Rollerboys, never has the world of action sports seemed so otherworldly and surreal.. while also gritty and urbane.

I realize that I am using a number of hundred dollar words in a description of Christian Slater’s Gleaming the Cube, but the very least I can do for the film is show it some respect. So, please, bear with me in that regard. While the movie may not demand a really thorough examination in the same regard as the work of Frederico Fellini, and regardless of how dumbed down Gleaming the Cube can be at times, there are some really interesting decisions made behind the scenes that puzzled me while watching. The very first thing that caught my attention in the movie is the fashion. Of course any film made in the late eighties or early nineties is bound to feature some tragically awful apparel, but the clothing that Christian Slater and many of his skater friends wear closely resembles something out of a post-apocalyptic action film. His anti-conformity attitude is ratcheted to the n’th degree, and teenage rebellion has never seemed quite as over the top as it does here. In the third act, when Slater’s character starts to wear more traditional clothing (if you call wearing a dress suit to public school traditional for a teenager, that is) he doesn’t so much “sell out” by his rebellious code but instead adapts into his surroundings… which is another way of saying “selling out”, I suppose. In the fact that this “selling out” isn’t actually tackled or even discussed brings up another strange facet of the movie that leaves the audience slightly puzzled. In fact, that is precisely why I like the movie as much as I do. It is a movie that seems to come from so many varying directions that it doesn’t seem beholden to any given audience, and doesn’t even seem to perfectly endear itself towards the culture that it looks to examine.

The true joy and fun of the project ultimately comes through in the utter adoration that is shown to skateboarding itself. While I have never been a skater (I have the balance of a one-eared cat with no whiskers), I have always been interested in the culture as an interesting American phenomenon. The “X-Games”, an annual event showcasing the best in action sports (skateboarding, BMX riding, etc.) really brought skateboarding to its peak in popularity during the 90’s. However, skateboarding also came into popularity during the eighties despite the fact that in mainstream culture it was generally viewed as a interesting sideshow distraction rather than a legitimate sporting event. Gleaming the Cube captures the cultural sideshow presentation of the sport in full swing. In that regard, as previously mentioned, the film really works as a cinematic time capsule. Demonstrating the very worst fashion of the eighties, along with some very exaggerated interpretations of that Californian “skate kid” identity. The film could very well irk the nerves of some modern viewers not quite prepared for the over indulgence of style headed their way, but when watching as a cultural pathologist of sorts it is interesting to see where the sport started and how far it has come. It would nearly take another decade for the X-Games to bring skateboarding out of a deep depression that saw it decline heavily in popularity, but here in 1989 we can see how rooted the sport was within the punk-rock and DIY aesthetic of the time.

There are two ways you can look at a movie such as Gleaming the Cube. You either watch it and have fun with it or you have fun at its expense. You could just as easily sit back and make fun of the ridiculous fashion style and the rather over-the-top nature of the story, but the fact is the movie knows what it is and it appears that they just ran with it. A case of style over substance and fun taking the front seat, Gleaming the Cube is a hard movie to dislike despite all of its flaws and imperfections. The performances by most of the cast are amplified to the point of distortion, but that is part of what makes it okay to laugh “with” the movie. It doesn’t appear that Graeme Clifford had any pretensions about the sort of movie he was making and by running with it, he developed a very fun cult classic that delivers in all of the departments that one might expect. We have action, we have adventure, there’s some romance and even some head-ier things such as racial prejudices and family drama. How can you not like that?

The Conclusion
A no frills-all thrills attempt at bringing the spotlight on the world of skateboarding. What was at one time simply a spectacle, but has now developed into a sport, the movie offers insight into the skateboarding phenomena at an important time in its lifeline. The action, in terms of skateboarding, is rather simplistic in comparison to what would now be considered cutting edge, but that is part of the movies charm. Delightfully campy and fun, I can’t help but give Gleaming the Cube an honest four out of five. Take note that this is a title that not all audiences are going to feel instantly drawn to, but for those looking for a fun dose of eighties magic this might just prove to be the ticket.