The Power of Skateboarding

Gleaming the Cube

While wandering through the various depths and crags of YouTube, I came across the channel for Patrick (H) Willems. He’s a movie critic and reviewer who spends a lot of time discussing cinema history and trends. His channel is worth checking out, if you’re in the mood for more discussion on cinema in all forms. One particular video he had, though, was “How One Movie Killed the 1980s”. That film was Days of Thunder, the Tom Cruise NASCAR film, and while the movie didn’t kill the actual decade (coming out in 1990, Days of Thunder wasn’t even technically a 1980s movie) but it did kill the specific type of movie that was hugely popular during that decade.

Days of Thunder was a Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer film, and it followed their specific formula for movies, which they called “The High Concept Film”. It was meant to give people a single, simple idea they could latch onto, a concept so perfect it would bring people into the theaters. We could spend a lot of time delving into the details of the formula (and it would be better if we did that with one of the duo’s actual films and not just a knock off movie we’ll be touching on today), but the short of it is that the films (true 1980s formula movies) had to have a concept that was announced in the first act, followed by an inciting incident. This should send the hero (whoever they may be) down a path where they let go of who they thought they should be, only to find themselves, embrace who they are, and use that to win. Whatever they’re winning at, they just have to win.

When Willems went through and looked at the most 1980s movies of all time, Gleaming the Cube was not on that list. A big reason is that this movie was not at all successful. It was, in fact, a complete bomb at the Box Office, only recouping $2.7 Mil of its $10 Mil budget. Anyone that remembers this movie does so because it was on constant play on the cable movie channels after it made its quick and sad exit from theaters. It’s trash, but very 1980s trash, and despite it not coming from the team of Simpson and Bruckheimer, it does still try to fit that 1980s formula that was oh so popular at the time. It does what it can to be the perfect 1980s movie and, in many ways it does that… just not in a way anyone wanted to watch.

So let’s look at the formula. The “high concept” for this film is “what if skateboarding was used to solve a crime”. In Gleaming the Cube we’re introduced to high school student Brian Kelly (Christian Slater), a slacker who wants to spend all of his time skateboarding. He’s a skatepunk, often getting in trouble with the cops, although one detective, Al Lucero (Steven Bauer) seems to have a soft spot for the kid, trying to work to keep him out of trouble. It’s not Brian, though, who ends up in deep trouble but his adopted brother, Vinh (Art Chudabala). Vinh works for the Vietnamese Anti-Communist Relief Fund (VACRF), but when he discovers some very odd numbers in their books, he reports it to his boss, Colonel Trac (Le Tuan), who immediately fires him saying, “I need to hire a professional.”

Vinh isn’t able to let it go, so he sneaks into the warehouse storing all the VACRF supplies. He sets off their silent alarm, though, and is immediately caught. But while he’s being interrogated by Trac and warehouse owner Harvey McGill (Charles Cypher), Vinh dies. They cover it up, making it look like a suicide, but Brian has doubts. His brother wasn’t acting suicidal, and something just seems way off about the whole story. So he cleans himself up, starts dating the Colonel’s daughter, and does what he can to remake himself so that he can study the crime and find the real culprits. And when it all comes to a head, Brian gets back in touch with his skating buddies so they can confront the Colonel and McGill. In the end they have to chase the perps down and save the day… with skating!

Going back and watching Gleaming the Cube (thanks to Amazon PrimeWhile Netflix might be the largest streaming seervice right now, other major contenders have come into the game. One of the biggest, and best funded, is Amazon Prime, the streaming-service add-on packing with free delivery and all kinds of other perks Amazon gives its members. And, with the backing of its corporate parent, this streaming service very well could become the market leader. since the streamer apparently understands my love of shitty movies) I was struck by how much this film desperately wanted to be the perfect, high concept film. It has the rough hero, the inciting incident, the fall from who he is, and then the “contest” where the hero wins the day via the power of his one specific skill. Hell, it even has one other factor that came to play in every blockbuster 1980s film: a title theme song from its soundtrack meant to sell records once you were done watching the film in theaters. It’s got the elements to be a blockbuster 1980s movie… so what happened.

Well, for starters, the name does the film absolutely no favors. “Gleaming the Cube” is a nonsense collection of words that only makes sense to skaters (and, even then, only some of them). The term, as defined in the movie (and by some skaters in interviews elsewhere), means to “push your limits to the edge”. In the context of the movie that means that Brian is going to do everything he can – physically, mentally, emotionally – to solve the mystery of his brother’s murder. To general audiences, though, the title was totally meaningless. “What is this film about? Geometry?” If you were to go to the theaters and see either Gleaming the Cube or maybe one of a number of decent movies still lingering in theaters (like The Naked Gun, Hellraiser II, or A Nightmare on Elm Street 4), I think I know which way they would lean.

Beyond that, though, the film looks cheap. It was clearly stitched together with a shoestring budget, featuring “made-for-TV” production values for most of its runtime. Yes, it does have a couple of pretty decent action scenes, with the highway chase at the end of the movie being the standout that cult fans of the film remember. But it takes a long time to get there, with a lot of talking, and not a lot of skating, in the middle of the film just to pad the runtime. There are moments that really do work in the film, but there’s also a lot of flab and it makes for a slow, at times plodding film.

With that said, it is also gloriously 1980s. You have the plotline of the criminals trying to do the right thing (via the wrong actions) in “fighting communism”, a true thread of the decade. You have the 1980s fashions and music that plays through the film. You have Tony Hawk in a small acting role (as Buddy), and he’s also a driver of a Pizza Hut delivery truck, complete with the tiny, iconic roof on the vehicle. There are other films that are considered more 1980s, such as Top Gun and Rocky IV, but few have as much delightfully terrible cheese in their bodies as Gleaming the Cube. It’s like a theatrical stuffed crust pizza (to bring us back to 1980s food staple Pizza Hut).

Plus, let’s be clear, there is something enjoyably stupid about the idea that you can solve a murder with the power of skateboarding. That really is the whole concept of the film, and every time Brian brings out his board and uses it to find clues, or incite a reaction from the bad guys, or use his skating prowess in a chase scene, you find yourself going, “was this really the most efficient way to do this?” The film has to bend over backwards to work the skateboarding into the functions of the film and it really is desperately silly and weird. More than once I found myself yelling at the characters, “you have a car! Just use the car!” But no, we have to solve this crime with the power of skateboarding. That is the only way this would work, apparently.

That is the charm of the film, though: it commits to its dumb idea. WIth a decent performance from Christian Slater and some pretty good skateboarding action from a solid collection of stunt performers, Gleaming the Cube does at least give us a very different action film from anything else that came out around it. Very few movies tried to have their hero solve anything with the power of skateboarding. This film was daring enough to think that could somehow work, and then it went with it. No matter how dumb the film had to seem, it’s producers rolled ahead and made a weird, silly, stupid, but delightfully fun to watch film.

Released as it was at the start of 1989, Gleaming the Cube feels like the telltale sign of death for this specific style of high concept film. Days of Thunder would come a year later and issue the true death notice, but it already felt like the formula was on its last legs here. How many different ways can you take the formula and apply it to a story? Gleaming the Cube tries to do what it can with the structure, applying skateboarding to the story style so that it can squeeze one more high concept film out of it. And it doesn’t really work. It’s fun trash but a bad movie. Despite this, though, I do recommend watching the movie. It’s not good but it’s stupidly entertaining and a perfect slice of cinema from its era. I don’t think you could release Gleaming the Cube in any other decade, it just wouldn’t work. But at the tail end of the 1980s, with cable movie channels to rely on after, this film was able to find life as a trashy cult classic and we’re all better for it.