Sunday, September 22, 2019

Gleaming the Cube (1989)

Orange County kid Brian Kelly (Christian Slater) is a skateboarding mad professional outsider with a nice line in semi-nihilist philosophy. Part of the reason for his mad-on, apart from the always deplorable state of the world and teenage hormones, is clearly his not completely untrue impression that his parents (Ed Lauter and Micole Mercurio) do rather prefer his adopted brother Vinh (Art Chudabala) to him. Vinh being a kind of near-genius golden boy (which the film does suggest is his way of coping with the whole “being a Vietnamese kid adopted into a very white family” thing) does certainly make him easier to like. The relationship between the two brothers isn’t really all that acrimonious, mind you.

When Vinh is found dead in an apparent suicide in a motel room Brian doesn’t believe his brother truly killed himself right from the start, and when he starts poking around in Vinh’s stuff, he begins to find hints pointing to the truth. A truth the audience knows right from the start: Vinh found evidence for Colonel Trac (Le Tuan), a big shot in the local Vietnamese community he did some part time bookkeeping work for and whose daughter Tina (Min Luong) he dated, being involved in plans of smuggling weapons provided by one Mr Lawndale (Richard Herd) into Vietnam to arm a supposed anti-Communist uprising, and the conspirators accidentally killed him for it. Brian’s not exactly subtle investigation will bring himself into danger right quick, but it turns out that skateboarding and a near-sociopathic ruthlessness can be very useful survival traits in this sort of situation.

I am pretty sure Graeme Clifford’s Gleaming the Cube is the only entry into the sub-genre of the 80s skateboarding neo noir conspiracy thriller, but given how surprising, interesting and gripping most of the film turns out to be, I rather wish there was more of the sub-genre.

Clifford works as your typically slick late-80s director here, though one making skateboarding look rather more interesting and exciting than I usually think of it. Even though it’s not the kind of direction style that terribly excites me, it is effective at pulling in the threads of all the very different genre bits and pieces the film uses and turning them – until the climax, at least – into an organic whole. Plus, Clifford does know how to stage very classic suspense set-ups very well, so scenes like Brian’s witnessing of the second murder while he’s hiding in the backseat of a car that could have turned out rather ridiculous in the wrong hands work as well as they should.

The star’s the script by Michael Tolkin, though. Tolkin manages to juggle all sorts of very different and a bit ridiculous ideas, include a bunch of skateboarding, said suspense scenes, suburban teen drama turning noirish, and turn them into an actual story about actual people with actual stakes. One truly impressive thing about the script is how it avoids being as cartoonish as a description of the film may sound, at least until the climax, instead sure-handedly creating characters coming from believable social circumstances like the Brian/Vinh relationship. Equally impressive is that the film clearly realizes how Brian’s outsider-dom is self-constructed by a young guy for whom it is safe to do that because he’s from polite suburbia, with all the get out of jail free cards this place provides him with. Thanks to an eye for social details like this, and an actual ability to find depth in the characters, the plot doesn’t so much feel like a highly constructed thriller but like the natural consequences of these people’s lives.

At the same time, Gleaming’s tendency to shift between genre codes keeps it surprising instead of feeling like algebra made of people. There’s a true moment of shock when Brian starts doing a preppy make-over to get Tina to trust him, so he can better spy on her father, and acts more ruthless the longer this goes on, apparently using her without realizing – or perhaps simply not caring - how much he does. Though, at this point, the film actually pulls its punches and Tina is perfectly alright with being betrayed into hurting her father, which for my tastes is the script’s greatest misstep.

The film even expands this approach of always being deeper as well as more interesting than it needs to be to its villains. This trio of idiots who think they are much cleverer than they actually are comes right out of a Coen Brothers film, and consequently, most of the film’s somewhat escalating violence comes from their incompetence and their unwillingness to stop and think instead of turning to increasingly stupid plans, which of course plays very nicely with Brian’s own willingness to escalate.

Speaking of escalation, there is the little thing of the film’s climax, when this very well written, constructed and clever film does indeed turn into the cartoon its basic set-up promised from the start, so expect an absurdly chipper, and absolutely insane, final fifteen minutes, with a ridiculous – and very fun – highway chase involving Slater catching a skateboard ride on a sport scar, a game of chicken with a Pizza Hut truck, and no grounding whatsoever in reality, apart from the reality of a very weird action film. It’s not really the ending I’d have chosen for Gleaming the Cube (in my movie, everybody dies), but it’s certainly one nobody watching will soon forget.

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