December 8, 2012

RETRO ACTVE: Gleaming the Cube (1989)

by Nick Schager

Gleaming the Cube

[This week's "Retro Active" is inspired by the documentary portrait of skateboarder Danny Way, Waiting for Lightning.]

What does Vietnamese anti-communist activism have to do with rad skateboarding? Absolutely nothing. Except, of course, that they were melded together in hilariously random fashion in 1989's seminal skateboarding drama Gleaming the Cube, a work that brought to the multiplex masses the burgeoning sport and its fashion. At the center of this cult-classic is Christian Slater, sporting ratty t-shirts, spiky hair, and a lone left earring dangling from his 'lobe, the teenage actor striking a pose of rebel-cool that, along with the film's portrait of skating through city streets and in empty neighborhood swimming pools, helped inspire legions of kids to learn to grind and ollie. Slater is Brian, a prototypical high-school outsider whose parents don't understand his lifestyle and its attendant low grades and trouble with the law. His problems don't really begin, however, until his adopted Vietnamese brother Vinh (Art Chudabala), after expressing concern about trouble at work to Brian, is found hanging in a motel room, an apparent suicide that makes little sense given Vinh's status as the perfect child. Cue Brian's transformation into a modern-day Hardy Boy, with the skater snooping around despite the protestations of cop Lucero (Steven Bauer) until he discovers that Vinh was the victim of nefarious forces intent on covering up an arms smuggling operation involving efforts to combat Vietnamese Reds.

Gleaming the Cube

Consequently, Graeme Clifford's film is a many-headed beast, as concerned with portraying Los Angeles' Vietnamese community as it is with shining a spotlight on the burgeoning skater culture—two concerns that couldn't be less related. The result is a story that plays like some laughably bizarre mash-up in which cameos from Tony Hawk butt up against sociological snapshots of Vietnamese pool halls and park festivals. Stranger still is how little skating there actually is in Gleaming the Cube, which for long stretches details Brian's sleuthing to uncover the real reason behind Vinh's death. That investigation leads him to Colonel Trac (Le Tuan), the father of Vinh's girlfriend Tina (Min Luong), who's working with an American named Lawndale (Richard Herd) to smuggle guns and ammunition back to Vietnam—a plan that Vinh uncovered and was accidentally killed for, and which also soon leads to the murder of another accomplice that Brian partially witnesses. According to Clifford's film, such crimes are easy to cover up from the cops but difficult to hide from a punk like Brian, whose probing so quickly leads him to the bad guys in question that Lucero comes off like the dimmest of detectives.

Gleaming the Cube

Slater's lack of skating prowess and use of a stunt double is made abundantly clear by repeated close-ups of the character's feet while skating, as well as by silhouetted medium shots. Nonetheless, Gleaming the Cube's signature footage, while paling in comparison to more modern feats of skateboarding dexterity, adequately captures the devil-may-care attitude and daring that ignited the sport. Too bad, then, that between an intro in which Brian and his crew scout for skate-pool locations via a private plane flight and then tear up one swimming hole much to the homeowner's chagrin, and a finale in which Brian latches onto a sports car to chase and thwart Lawndale, there's very little impressive skating to be found. Instead, the drama grinds to a virtual halt as it details Brian's attempts to get close to Colonel Trac via Tina, whom he woos by ditching his skater couture and adopting a preppy look that alienates him from his pals. That Colonel Trac won't let Tina date Americans speaks to immigrant cultural insularity and intolerance, but such undercurrents are treated just like the plot's notion of covert anti-communist machinations—namely, as superficial window dressing for what amounts to a silly boy-detective fantasy.

Gleaming the Cube

Hilarity isn't in short supply throughout Gleaming the Cube, be it the opening credit sequence's use of a prototypical '80s-era title song, Lucero's penchant for flicking Brian in the ear, the fact that Lucero's apartment is decorated with posters of scantily clad models, or one character’s listening to a Vietnamese rendition of "Nowhere to Run." Eventually, Brian avenges Vinh's death by taking down the evil Lawndale, making himself a paragon of cross-cultural compassion even as he usurps his dead sibling's role by successfully romancing his girlfriend. Making heads or tails of what's being said about American-Vietnamese relations, however, is ultimately useless, since every element has been thrown together with haphazard abandon, exposing the film as a quick and ridiculous stab at celebrating a mushrooming trend—replete with two scenes of Brian blowing off steam by skating through abandoned industrial spaces that, along with a late game of vehicular "chicken," give the proceedings a decidedly Footloose-y feel.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at December 8, 2012 10:41 PM