Ho Chi Minh Doesn’t Skateboard: Gleaming the Cube

The 1980s were riddled with an abundance of ridiculously cheesy teen-targeted sport themed movies. Movies like Thrashin’ (1986), Under the Boardwalk (1989) and Rad (1986) used textbook slang, template storytelling, and stereotypical characters that made obvious commercial filmmaker and producer’s attempts to effortlessly cash in on the industries that, by the middle part of the decade, lived long enough to prosper. It would also influence the future of voice-overs in Asian film (see BioZombie).

Gleaming the Cube (1989) is one of the better skateboarding adventures, abandoning the single-minded tale of the dubious underdog who must prove his worth in some ridiculous, climactic contest. As a Cold War-themed skateboard movie, it fuses the cheesy teen sports movie with another staple of 80s movies: over-the-top action films who’s heroes were usually oiled, muscular good guys single-handedly avenging foreign-born warlords seethed in compensatory patriotism and political propaganda. The result of this marriage of strange bedfellows? Irreverent teenage skaters become defenders of American colonialism pride.

Like a Goofus & Gallant comic, bleach blond skate-punk Brian Kelly (Christian Slater) is the exact opposite of his straight-laced adopted brother, Vinh (Art Chudabala). Brian and his friends are bribing jet pilots and getting arrested for trespassing in a rich, loud homeowner’s swimming pool while Vinh is helping with his girlfriend’s father’s post-Vietnam War relief program. After Vinh brings to the boss’s attention possible errors in inventory shipping, he is curiously fired and is later found hanged to death in a hotel room. When there doesn’t appear to be conclusive evidence of foul play according to the young, hard-edged detective (Steve Bauer), his death is officially written off as a suicide. But Brian is certain that his brother wasn’t the type to check into a hotel and kill himself, and so he embarks on his own investigation which leads him on the trail of weapons smugglers and their ninja-like henchmen. Soon, he realizes the potential crime-fighting advantages of skateboarding.

Director Graeme Clifford and writer Michael Tonkin’s Gleaming the Cube (or, A Brother’s Justice as it was called in its TV release) does undoubtedly have the trappings of typical 80s teen movie corniness. Brian brazenly suggests to the hard-edged detective that if he had a dog who resembled said detective that he would shave it’s ass and tech it to walk backwards (gasp!). There’s the panicked goon who drives around in his cool black vintage convertible listening to Vietnamese covers of Motown. And who can forget the theme song, “Gleaming the Cube,” by Michael James Jackson? It was just as inspirational as Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” from the Karate Kid (1984). Although most of the cheesiness can be chalked up to Christian Slater’s hammy acting technique (especially the part where he’s informed of Vinh’s death). And, even though there are plenty of genre clichés to pack into the 100 minutes running time (which means a big chase finale), it’s all on a tolerable level and keeps it from crossing that line into it’s so bad it’s bad, though it might rightly be considered so bad it’s good.

The film’s unique quality is the not-so subtle political text for which a movie about skaters seem like an odd forum. Sure, it is not a novelty to inject it into a teen movie, and especially an action movie which undoubtedly helps to quickly create a villain as it were in Red Dawn (1984) and Toy Soldiers (1990). Yet, the intermittent cursing of the Vietcong at least doesn’t consume the entire movie.

More unusually and the thing probably keeping this movie at the forefront of pop culture memories of young 80s nostalgics (when not listing the obvious in favorites from the decade) is behind-the-scenes trivia. Documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta, a former pro-skater for the legendary Dogtown team and Powell-Peralta skateboard company co-founder worked on this movie as second unit director, shooting the skate sequences, while another legendary team of skateboarders, The Bones Brigade, were brought on to perform stunts and training. As Christian Slater’s stunt double, Rodney Mullen, the Freestyle King, can be seen in the warehouse montage and Mike McGill performed ramp and pool tricks (although he was replaced by Jozsef Attila towards the end of filming when McGill got food poisoning).

Meanwhile, Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerro (who also taught Slater how to skateboard noting that he didn’t seem too enthused to learn much beyond the basics) have minor roles as members of Brian Kelly’s skateboard posse. Probably the most endearing moment was young Tony Hawk in his Pizza Hut delivery truck barreling down a highway with a satisfying grin on his face as the sure victor in a game of chicken against some of the goons. Co-star Max Perlich was a veteran skater too, which means that Slater was probably cast primarily because he was the burgeoning teen celebrity (although he was 20 at the time of the film’s release) the same way that Leif Garrett was cast in Skateboard: The Movie (1978). Tony Hawk, in his autobiography Occupation: Skateboarder wrote about some of the movies that he worked on as a stunt consultant, including Thrashin’ (1986) and the timeless classic, (yes that’s sarcasm!) Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987). The funnier insider information there, however, being that Perlich nearly got his ass kicked by an irate guy who showed up to the set. He owned the car that Perlich did an acid drop off of one night while skating with the Bones Brigade.

A review of Gleaming the Cube on The Chucks Connection (because some of the actors wear Chuck Taylors in the movie) probably says it best: there’s plenty of cornball elements in this movie (bad acting by Slater, convoluted plot, etc.), but there’s enough to keep the not-too-serious viewer entertained.



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