One day in the mid-’80s, Holly-wood screenwriter Michael Tolkin was driving through Anaheim on the Santa Ana freeway when he suddenly received a disturbing vision of a teenage Vietnamese boy being murdered in a motel room. Perhaps your first thought is that the boy could’ve been taken hostage in a combative nation at war, but when the maid comes in the next morning and opens the curtains, you are suddenly looking across Harbor Boulevard, revealing a beautiful, sunny view of the Matterhorn bobsleds as the Disneyland monorail passes by. This isn’t Vietnam; this is Anaheim, and Tolkin’s strange vision would inspire him to write what is perhaps the most Orange County movie ever made.
Gleaming the Cube was released 30 years ago this week. It starred 18-year-old Christian Slater as Brian Kelly, a skateboarder investigating the death of his adopted Vietnamese brother. While not well-received at the time of its release, it has since achieved a loyal cult following through home viewings and streaming services. From its opening scene at the John Wayne Airport to its climactic final chase alongside Long Beach’s Shoreline Drive (which doubled as the San Diego freeway in the film), Gleaming the Cube makes Orange County not only a setting in the film, but a character as well. It’s a voyage through the seedier side of OC’s many suburbs, a totally ’80s underbelly full of run-down space-age motels, mallscaped high schools and a never-ending maze of orange groves. America’s fast-growing skateboarding trend is promised in the title of the film (the term “gleaming the cube” means for one to achieve cosmic bliss by pushing one’s limits to the edge), yet surprisingly to audiences, the story plays out as an intriguing, well-balanced drama surrounding OC’s Vietnamese community in Little Saigon.
When Tolkin moved from New York City to Los Angeles, he quickly became fascinated with Orange County. At first glance, its suburban sprawls and tourist destinations appeared to be no more than a generation old, “too new” to have any sort of real history. However, the more time he spent in OC, the more fascinated he became, and the more research he did, the more he realized he was writing something very different that couldn’t possibly take place in any other region in the world. Tolkin worked hard to make sure his script reflected OC’s vastness, its personality and its culture. Katella, Harbor, Euclid, Bolsa—the movie’s dialogue contains a catalog of famous OC street names in Westminster, Garden Grove, Newport Beach and Orange.
Tolkin’s affection for Orange County, as well as his attention to detail, is evident throughout the film. For the gravity-defying skating sequences, Gleaming enlisted professional skateboarder turned director Stacy Peralta (of the famous Z-boys) to serve as a technical adviser and second-unit director on the film. Peralta then recruited members of his elite Bones Brigade skate team to star in the film as members of Brian’s crew, including Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen, Lance Mountain, Mike Vallely, Tommy Guerrero and an 18-year-old, fresh-out-of-high-school kid named Tony Hawk. In the opening of the film, the Bones Brigade descend upon John Wayne Airport’s Million Air Club taxiway (a privately owned hangar). After skating around the tarmac, they pay a pilot $80 to take them up for a scenic ride over OC. As they fly over Disneyland, they sing the chorus to “Stukas Over Disneyland” by legendary LA punk band the Dickies, then they aerially scout residential homes for empty pools to skate in. Future lead singer of OC rock band the Aquabats (and creator of the children’s television show Yo Gabba Gabba!) Christian Jacobs also appears briefly as a character named Gremic.
Gleaming the Cube also uses its Orange County backdrop to show how the “American dream” of the 1950s and ’60s, when Disneyland and its surrounding areas were developed, by the late ’80s had deteriorated into nihilism fueled by the constant threat of nuclear devastation. The movie was released in 1989, just before the end of the Cold War. The Anaheim motel that the film’s grim murder takes place in was the Cosmic Age Lodge on Harbor Boulevard. This was one of three “space-ace” Disneyland-adjacent hotels built by Al Stovall beginning in 1964. A past president of Best Western, Stovall jumped aboard America’s space-race fascination by constructing “out of this world” hotel experiences for Disney guests using the resources from his copper mine and plastic factories. He also implemented futuristic interior and exterior decorations on his Apollo Inn on West Street (now Disneyland Drive) and Space Age Lodge and the Inn of Tomorrow on Katella; Stovall promised all of his motel guests “moon-level luxury with down-to-earth rates” and a free ride in the “rocketmobile” (a 1960s Volkswagen bus with a rocket strapped to its hood that would shuttle guests to and from the park). By the 1980s, however, the Cosmic Age Lodge was just another seedy motel on Harbor Boulevard, its “moon-level luxury” nowhere to be found. Stovall’s Cosmic Age Lodge was demolished in 1997, when construction began on Disney’s California Adventure.
Surviving the nuclear war is a theme that runs throughout the film. The movie’s school scenes were filmed at Woodbridge High School in Irvine. If you’re curious why the school quad in the movie looks so much like the food court at an ’80s, two-story mall, then you’re on to something. Woodbridge High School was built in 1980 with intentions of it becoming a shopping center if student enrollment got too low. And malls in the ’80s were designed to become a place for hundreds to take shelter in the event of a nuclear war. Brian’s skateboard-assembling guru named Yabbo (played by Max Perlich) lives in a bomb shelter underneath his house; it’s there where the two friends converse. “I mean it’s ridiculous to think that there’s going to be anything in 30 years, you know,” Brian says. “I don’t know what’s worse: being blown up in a nuclear war or having a 7-Eleven on every corner.” The film’s alternate title, Skate or Die, which it was released as in Norway and Germany, suddenly seems quite poignant.
Perhaps the most impressive, as well as somewhat unexpected, aspect of the film, however, was its honest portrayal of Orange County’s Vietnamese community. In the 1980s, the portrayal of Vietnamese in American films was very much limited to blockbuster war movies such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Gleaming the Cube revealed a much less Hollywood-typical portrait of the culture, centering on a shopping center in Orange County’s Little Saigon (the largest Vietnamese American population outside of Vietnam). Actor Le Tuan (who plays Colonel Trac) was very enthusiastic about the way Vietnamese were represented in the script and even served as a technical adviser on the film, helping Australian director Graeme Clifford maintain a sense of authenticity. A major celebration filmed at Balboa’s Peninsula Park featured more than 300 Vietnamese extras. When Tuan noticed a detail on set that just didn’t seem right, he would bring it to Clifford’s attention, and it would be reworked immediately, no questions asked. As well as learning to skateboard in the six months leading up to the film’s production, the teen-heartthrob from Manhattan, Slater, also learned a lot about the Vietnamese way of life from co-star Min Luong, who played Tina Trac (his adopted brother’s girlfriend): the rules the families set for their children, the way families structure the relationships between parents and children.
In one tense scene, Brian sneaks into the backseat of a car driven by the man he suspects has murdered his brother. As the Lincoln Continental drives through a large orange grove in Irvine Ranch (the grove, which no longer exists, was just off Jeffrey Road), he pops in a mixtape that includes Vietnamese-sung renditions of Motown classics “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas and “Never Can Say Goodbye” by the Jackson 5. Through scenes such as this, the movie shows the evolution of Orange County, from an expanse of orange groves to an atomic-age playground for the white middle class to a land of opportunity for the Vietnamese and other immigrant communities who have made OC their home. Sadly, upon its release, many people dismissed this movie as nothing more than a poor attempt to capitalize on the skateboarding trend of the late ’80s. In fact, Gleaming the Cube is a surprisingly touching and relevant movie that also serves as a perfect time capsule of Orange County.