Brandon: “I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of their time. And I think the main reason is they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to the static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is that they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I do believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Frederico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman
I return to that Corman quote more often than any other summation of what cinema signifies & achieves as an artform. It’s even more insightful to me than Roger Ebert’s often-quoted pearl of wisdom about how the movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” because it better takes in the full spectrum of film as both a force for good and a force for commerce. Something that’s especially interesting to me about cinema’s nature as a “compromised” art form is that it’s more or less required to mask the fact that it’s partially a business, hiding its desperate need for profit from its potential customers. As Corman points out, not every filmmaker is a Bergman or a Fellini, so the main goal of most films produced in the annual cinematic cycle is to make enough money so that producers can, in turn, make more movies the next go-round. They’re not supposed to show their hand while doing so, however, and most audiences prefer to maintain the illusion that their entertainment was produced solely to tell a good story or provide a good time or achieve some kind of transcendent artistic ambition, not to make a quick buck. What’s always fascinating to me is when that illusion completely breaks down and the “art” of cinema is nakedly exposed as a simultaneously commercial enterprise. Titles like Space Jam (where the cash-in conscious brand mashup of Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan™ are injected with a wealth of unwarranted, but marketable 90s Attitude) and Mac & Me (where E.T. was shamelessly ripped off to promote a wide range of Coca-Cola & McDonalds products) make for an absurdist, deliriously silly confession of guilt where filmmaking is exposed as the compromised art form that it truly is. The Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, produced at the heights of the white boy rapper’s marketability as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, is one such film, a nakedly honest admission to its own nature as a cynical cash grab. What’s most surprising about Cool as Ice and what makes it a memorable watch, though, is how well it fulfills cinema’s other defining function: art.
Structured as a “rap-oriented” remake of the early Marlon Brando classic The Wild One, Cool as Ice finds its titular star and “Ice Ice Baby” singer stranded in a small town in Everywhere, America. His big city looks (including a leather jacket that exclaims things like “SEX!” & “YEP!” in gigantic block letters and the loudest pairs of pants this side of MC Hammer), flashy motorcycle antics, and massive overdose of hip hop flavor make him & his crew (a conspicuously black entourage that provides him visual street cred among an endless sea of white faces) out to be a target for wild accusations in the small town they unintentionally invade. While waiting for one of his buddies’ motorcycles to be repaired at a Pee-wee’s Playhouse style garage described by the soundtrack to be a literal Limbo, Ice’s protagonist, Johnny, strikes up a budding romance with the Girl Next Door and gets blamed for a string of local crimes he had nothing to do with based solely on his outlandish appearance. Unlike a young Marlon Brando, Vanilla Ice is not exactly oozing with potent sexuality & onscreen charisma. When asked to deliver raw machismo in lines like, “Words of wisdom: drop that zero and get with the hero,” he mumbles his way through the readings as if he were rehearsing them for the first time. He is, however, in his own strange way, a beautiful specimen, an object that can be easily commodified. Like a wind-up toy idly waiting on the shelf for its opportunity to entertain, Vanilla Ice mostly exists as a fascinating image, a collection of 90s fashion quirks & excellent bone structure that only comes alive when he’s prompted to do the one thing he was built for: sing & dance. He’s a talent in both regards, even if his skill set is a time capsule of a bygone era, and the movie doesn’t ask much more from him than to wait his turn until it’s time to pull his string to perform another song. Cool as Ice boils down its titular star to his most basic essence: a product.
Just because Cool as Ice is a cheap cash-in doesn’t mean it’s a lazy cash-in. Artfully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kazinski, who has since made a name for himself as a longtime collaborator with Stephen Spielberg, Cool as Ice often plays like an alternate dimension where Terrence Malick directs feature-length breakfast cereal commercials. Although a cartoonishly inane crime thriller, love story melodrama, and half-assed comedy about a doomed romance between a bad boy rapper and a spoiled Daddy’s girl, Cool as Ice is just absolutely gorgeous to behold. Gay 90s club music (not unlike the soundtrack to recent Movie of the Month Head Over Heels) pulsates while luscious camera work and over the top set design flood the screen with a meticulous craft in imagery the movie doesn’t deserve, given its pedigree: Malickian breeze blowing through tall grass, lightbulb microphones lifted from the “In Dreams” sequence of Blue Velvet, long lines of glowing globes spinning in the moonlight. In one especially stunning sequence, Vanilla Ice takes his Girl Next Door love interest (sporting a downright iconic sunflower sundress) on a daylong bike ride through the desert sands & a nearby construction site in what I’d genuinely consider one of the most visually pleasing and oddly sensual two minute stretches of pure cinema bliss I’ve ever witnessed. Given that director David Kellogg’s resume mostly consisted of “video documentaries” for Playboy until that point, I’m willing to attribute that beauty & awe entirely to Kazinski’s eye (speaking of the intersection of art & commerce). Still, it’s interesting that so much careful attention to visual craft would sneak its way into a movie that mainly exists to strike while the iron’s hot on a one hit wonder pop star. And since the movie failed as a business decision, only making a sixth of its budget back at the box office, all that’s really left to chew on at this point is its novelty as a pop culture time capsule and the artful flourishes Kazinski was able to sneak onscreen. I’d say both of these elements hold up in a 2010s context and together do a fairly decent job of being honest about the movie industry’s compromised existence as both an art and a business.
Britnee, how hyperbolic am I being in praise of Cool as Ice as an art object? Do the visuals of its summertime bike ride sequence and Limbo Garage production design actually achieve an artful aesthetic or is the film solely enjoyable for its “so bad it’s good” charms as an expensive, feature-length advertisement for Vanilla Ice, like an extended music video relic? I’m curious to know your thoughts on how the film balances art & commerce.
Britnee: I do agree that Cool as Ice is a beautiful work of art, as completely bonkers as it may sound. The fun house style camera angles, the vibrant neon colors (clothing, background, motorcycles, etc.), the fast-forward sequences that incorporate 90s hip-hop beats are just a few things that make Cool as Ice a visual treat. As Brandon mentioned, the bike ride and Limbo Garage are some of the most artistic elements in the movie, especially the Limbo Garage. Every scene that took place in the Limbo Garage was almost like stepping into another world, maybe even another movie? The garage owners, Roscoe and Mae (Blanche from Grease), act like they’re aliens disguised as humans, and that somehow really adds to the artistic flair of the garage. Their blank stares and eccentric attitudes were sort of chilling, and their ultra funky home seemed so out of place in such a white-bread town. Also, let’s not forget about the insane sandwiches the bike gang members made while in the house. Was it their personal choice to put sardines and peanut butter on a sandwich or were they under some sort of extraterrestrial spell? It’s all just so mysterious, and I love it.
As for the bike ride/construction zone love sequence, it was visually stunning, but it leaned more toward being “so bad it’s good.” Vanilla Ice popping out of unfinished walls with a childlike smile was way over the top. However, I did love the shots of the two lovebirds riding through the desert on his sweet bike while the sun was setting in the background. It was all very Purple Rain. This was the moment in the film where we should have been able to get a better glimpse into Johnny’s life. Kathy began to ask him personal questions before they started hopping over pieces of wood, but he never gave her any answers, only his signature “Yep, yep.” This scene, much like the rest of the movie, was more about the visuals instead of the story itself, and that’s not really a bad thing.
Cool as Ice was ultimately a film made to capitalize off one-hit-wonder Vanilla Ice, but in all honesty, I did not feel like the movie was trying to sell me Vanilla Ice. The incorporation of Vanilla Ice’s musical talent in real-life scenarios was surprisingly tastefully done. Yes, it’s terrible early 90s white boy rap, but his flow is pretty amazing. The film opens up with a club scene which is basically a Vanilla Ice video that incorporates Naomi Campbell’s lip syncing (I think?), but the rest of the movie, thankfully, strays away from that music video style. The next time Vanilla Ice, a.k.a. Johnny, gets a chance to show off his mad rhymes is at a teen hangout called The Sugar Shack. The performance was pretty great and sort of romantic, even though Johnny basically dry humps Kathy on The Sugar Shack’s floor. It’s so terrible, but it truly seemed like the two had a strong connection after that moment. Kathy, much like myself, was officially “Iced.”
I really enjoyed Vanilla Ice’s performance as Johnny. His acting reminded me of the kind of stuff you would find in an art house film. The way he recites his lines is so poetic and he exudes confidence. Personally, I would love to see him in another lead role because he knows how to own the screen.
Alli, were you at all impressed with Vanilla Ice’s acting skills? What other genre of movie would you like to see him act in?
Alli: More than anything else, I was actually really blown away by his dance moves, which I wasn’t aware he had somehow. I guess that one sequence in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 didn’t prepare me. Acting wise, I wasn’t really impressed with anyone in this movie. However, in this cast, he was a gem. He carried the role of the star very strongly, even stealing away attention from the ridiculous production design. His absurd balance of white boy rapper swagger and romance movie heroics somehow works. There’s no real explaining why, other than I think he’s given a lot of good (or bad, depending on how much of a grouch you are) material to work with. “If you ain’t true to yourself then you ain’t true to nobody. Live your life for someone else, you ain’t living,” is a real stand out line for instance. The showmanship of it all just comes so easily and naturally to him, which probably explains how he was even popular in the first place.
If I had to see him in a different genre of movie, I guess I would have to go with a road trip buddy movie. I’m thinking Crossroads, except replace Britney Spears with Vanilla Ice. He’s got that hip, laid back style, but can play the troubled bad boy as well. Just find a couple of equally nuanced and ridiculous 90’s dudes and you’ve got a hit on your hands. They could teach each other life lessons and dance moves, as they try to find themselves and the American Dream. Pun totally intended here, I think something like that would have been the perfect vehicle for him.
The Wild One was also prime for him, though. Of course Brando and V-Ice play the troubled, bad boy Johnny in different ways and Cool as Ice‘s plot quickly jumps off the rails, but I think it was a good fit. Both movies and actors play up teen crazes and parental anxieties. The Wild One, with its leather jackets, hip jazz music, and wild hats, is a movie all about style, which is something I know Vanilla Ice to also be about.
Boomer, what did you think of Vanilla Ice and his crew’s fashion? Was it a beautiful early 90’s/late 80’s hip hop time capsule or a horrifying mess that you can’t believe you watched an hour and a half of?
Boomer: The fashion was certainly atrocious at points, but it worked for me in the context of this movie. Cool as Ice is even more of a cartoon than the similarly named Cool World which followed a year later. In fact, the moment that solidified my surrender to the absurdity of the film was when the two hapless goons stopped in the middle of a sandy waste to review their map, and the sound that accompanies the taller of the two pulling his gun from his waistband is the basic cork/rubber popping sound that you can hear in animated stuff going back to Looney Tunes. It was essentially the same experience I had when I saw God Help the Girl for the first time and just absolutely hated it, until I surrendered to that film’s tweeness and accepted it for what it was, then ended up falling in love.
I’m not saying I fell in love with Cool as Ice, but I was certainly willing to overlook a good many of its flaws the more I allowed myself to be carried away by its unwavering devotion to being as aesthetically and narratively discomfiting as possible. From the way that the featureless scenery of the unnamed small town and its surrounding areas are treated like beautiful vistas by the cinematic eye, to the stylistically indulgent music video-esque speed-ups and musical accompaniment when Kat’s family is preparing dinner, there’s a distinctly tongue-in-cheek animated quality to Cool as Ice that caused me, against my better judgment, to make allowances for the portraits in sartorial horror that float through the film. Perhaps that innate zaniness is why the director’s only other feature, the awful Matthew Broderick Inspector Gadget, was (slightly) better received.
That having been said, that doesn’t mean that the, erm, fashion in the film gets a complete pass. It’s mind-boggling to me that not only does Johnny own not only one, but two pairs of short overalls; one of them is black with white stripes and one is black with blue stripes, and both are worn with the bib down and the straps hanging on his sides. Worse still, both pairs have the word “ice” stitched into the bib, meaning that they are (a) intended to be worn this way, since the word is printed to be read by others, and (b) these are presumably part of Vanilla Ice’s personal wardrobe, not just Johnny’s, since “ice” is only part of his catchphrase in the film, not his name. On the other hand, the times when he is wearing this less eye-catching apparel are not as bothersome as some of his other outfits. I absolutely hated the eye-searing harlequin pants in the first scene, but when they made their reappearance in the final musical sequence, it was a welcome relief after the film’s most heinous vestiary crime: that awful skull cap that Johnny wore at the very top of his head like Parappa the Rapper. I was willing to forgive a multitude of sins based on how bizarre this movie was, but not that hat. All of that having been said, aside from Kat’s timelessly simply dresses, all of the outfits in this movie are ridiculous, so it’s not just Ice’s personal flair that we’re seeing take the wheel here.
Of all the things that can be easily mocked about Cool as Ice, Kristin Minter’s performance is not among them. Most of the cast seems to be made up of amateur actors (not counting Michael Gross, last seen hereabouts in previous Movie of the Month Big Business, and he seems to be sleepwalking through this film), but Minter turns in a pretty solid performance, with surprising pathos. It’s a shame to think that her career hinged on the critical and financial success of this film, which never materialized. What do you think, Brandon? If Minter managed to sell her performance in this movie, why hasn’t she managed to have a more successful career?
Brandon: I totally back the praise for Kristin Minter’s performance as Kathy. Minter’s tasked with a fairly thankless, almost impossible dual duty of both existing as a blank slate so that teen girls in the audience can daydream of being in her place next to the supposedly hunky Johnny and making Johnny appear hunky in the first place. She is the literal Girl Next Door in the film, with her only defining characteristics being that she’s college bound & rides horses. In a hilarious touch of production design, the film even emphasizes this personality void by prominently hanging a framed blank sheet of white paper over her bed. Minter’s physicality and genuine mix of intelligence & sweetness makes Kathy feel like a real human being against these odds, however, which even better served her role as an audience surrogate. The actor has continually worked since the 90s, but besides a role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, it seems she mostly appears in single episode runs on various television series. Cool as Ice was clearly her time to break out & grab attention and I’d agree she did so admirably. My best guess as to why that didn’t lead to wider success is timing. Minter bears a striking resemblance to early 90s Lara Flynn Boyle in Cool as Ice, which was released concurrently with Boyle’s run as Donna on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series. If anyone was specifically looking to cast Minter’s type at the time, I suppose they’d be more likely to look to the actor who worked with Lynch instead of the one who worked with Vanilla Ice. That’s all speculation, of course, but when I gaze at the glory of the Cool as Ice poster (as I often do, thanks to the hilariously puzzling tagline “When a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only one way to melt it. Just add ice.”) all I see is Donna Hayward waiting to straddle the back of a white rapper’s motorcycle (which is somehow still a step up from James’s motorcycle).
Part of what’s so refreshing about Minter’s presence in the film is that she’s surrounded by so many mediocre, bitter men. Kathy’s father, the sleepwalking Michael Gross, allows his dark past to interfere with his daughter’s summertime fun & romance. The boyfriend Kathy leaves for Johnny is an alpha male shithead who slut-shames her in public for dancing with another man and obnoxiously threatens her life with drunk driving recklessness. Just about the only male character who isn’t a total monster in some way is Kathy’s kid brother, who serves as an audience surrogate for the demographic of potential Vanilla Ice fans who aren’t horny teenage girls: young children who look up to the rapper for being so cool. It’s entirely up to Minter (and Ice’s wardrobe) to sell that cool factor on Ice’s behalf, since a lot of Johnny’s actions read as bullheaded machismo. In the couple’s initial meet cute, Johnny shows off by jumping his motorcycle over a fence, scaring Kathy off the back of her horse in what could have been a paralyzing or even life-threatening fall. As payback, she kicks him in the balls. Johnny also steals Kathy’s personal property so that she’ll be obligated to talk to him again, shamelessly flirts with her in front of her boyfriend despite her obvious disinterest, and frequently sneaks into her bedroom window, uninvited, while she’s either asleep or not at home. In the film’s strangest moment (which is no small distinction) Johnny climbs into Kathy’s bed while she is sleeping and wakes her up by seductively sliding an ice cube between her lips. The frost on her breath is filmed beautifully as it rises in the early morning sunshine and the audience is left to stew in the creepiness of the moment for what feels like an eternity. Thankfully, Kathy is more turned on than creeped out and that scene leads directly to the construction site sequence I love so much. Vanilla Ice’s sex appeal can only be conveyed through so much wardrobe, dancing, and sunlit shirtlessness, so we rely on Kathy’s screen presence to sell us on its potency. She really does save the movie from just being a miserable parade of overly macho scoundrels.
Speaking of motorcycle straddling and ice cube sucking, teen horniness plays an alarmingly large role in this PG film about a white rapper and a small town kidnapping plot. It’s even been reported that a young Gwyneth Paltrow was offered the role as Kathy, but her parents made her turn it down because of the sexualized content. Britnee, you already mentioned Johnny dry humping Kathy on the Sugar Shack dancefloor. What are your thoughts on the way teenage sex & romance are handled in the film overall?
Britnee: I had no idea that this was a PG rated film. The ice cube bedroom scene alone is enough to get this film at least a PG-13 rating. Cool as Ice somehow manages to incorporate teen sexuality without making it too over-the-top. Kathy has a slight sexual awakening on the Sugar Shack dance floor, but nothing is really that hot and heavy after that. The film is trying to be sexy enough to attract horny teens to theaters, but at the same time, it’s trying to keep the main focus on Vanilla Ice’s dancing and rapping. For instance, the infamous ice cube scene could have gone much further than it actually did. Vanilla Ice is fully clothed in her bed (shoes and all) when lying beside her, while she’s fully clothed as well. This was definitely an opportunity for a sex scene, but it seems like it was intentionally avoided. Her little brother walks in on the two and asks if they were having sex, so it seems like that was done to keep the film’s sexiness on the quirky side to keep that PG rating.
Other than the surprising lack of sex scenes in Cool as Ice, I was very surprised to find that Vanilla Ice only had a few musical moments. He only raps about 3 or 4 times, and it just didn’t feel like it was enough for a film that’s supposed to be a hip-hop musical. I wanted to hear more of Vanilla Ice’s sick rhymes, so maybe this is just me being selfish. There were a couple of funky 90’s club songs thrown in here and there, and they took away opportunities for us to have more Ice.
Alli, did you find the relative lack of actual Vanilla Ice music to be strange? Do you think a love scene between Ice and Kathy that involves a rap serenade would have done well in this movie?
Alli: I did find that for something that seems so much like a vanity project there was a distinct lack of self promotion as far as music goes, but I’m glad he didn’t cram this movie with as much “Ice Ice Baby” as possible. I think that’s part of the reason why it transcends from weird vanity project to cult film art. While I’m glad his performance/seduction on the dance floor didn’t feel too, too forced, I actually would have really liked a delicate, free style serenade in the middle of that McMansion construction project (maybe a premonition of his current work on the DIY channel as a house remodeling wise guy). When they were just romping around in the emptiness would have been the perfect time to try to sell him more as a tender, troubled hunk, a role I just wasn’t buying. Overall though, yeah, I would have liked some more of his jams. I think the lack of Ice-related tunes just called more attention to everyone’s acting, and the bizarre muddled mess of a plot.
I didn’t really understand the whole crooked cop thing. Is this supposed to be a movie full of crime and intrigue or is it a teenage love story? I don’t even think anybody working on it knew for sure. I know we’ve talked about some of the similarities between Head Over Heels and Cool As Ice as far as the 90’s club jams, but I think they also have this crime narrative that happens somewhat out of nowhere that kind of hijacks the movie.
Boomer, do you think the father’s side plot took away too much attention from the love story?
Boomer: The side plot with the father’s past coming back to haunt him certainly seems to come out of nowhere, and is easily one of the least sensible elements in a film that’s already treads very close to nonsense, especially given that it’s instigated by his own foolishness. I mean, seriously, if you’re in witness protection, why on earth would you allow yourself to be filmed for a sound bite, even if it’s supposedly local? That aside, it does introduce the only real conflict in the film other than the fighting between Johnny and Katherine’s (ex)boyfriend, which is pretty tension-free after we see that Johnny alone is capable of fighting off a bunch of cornfed country boys single-handedly. Given that there’s not much other action taking place, there’s no real other way for Johnny to prove himself to Katherine’s family other than saving her little brother, but it still seems like a job that should have been left for the FBI (or whomever is in charge of the witness protection program in this bizarre universe), rather than a random rapping hottie with as much personality as an album cover.
Overall, the crime plot is the only element of the film that elevates it out of what would otherwise have been only nominally a plot. Without it, there’s not much in the way of conflict, nonsensical though it may be. It also gives the sleepwalking Gross something to do in the film, given that he’s the only real star here. I also liked the way that the two revenge-seekers were both somewhat bumbling and also credibly threatening. To go back to the above mention of Minter’s role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, they reminded me of the Wet Bandits from that film, in that they’re comically inept but still utterly capable of violence, as indicated when they kidnap Katherine’s younger brother. Her boyfriend is undoubtedly a “zero,” but without something to do other than stand majestically on his motorcycle in a romper, Johnny’s not much of a “hero” until the (ridiculous) rescue that serves as the meager climax of the movie. This centerpiece and the plot snags that lead up to it may seem tacked on, but without it, there’s even less of a film that what we end up with.
Brandon: It seems that Vanilla Ice’s entire career has been defined by overcoming his early status as a one-hit-wonder. Ever since “Ice Ice Baby” made him a star, Ice has been struggling to reinvent himself. When gangsta rap changed the industry, he released the single “Roll Em Up,” refashioning himself as a hard-as-fuck street tough. When Limp Bizkit popularized rap metal, he reimagined his sole hit single as the would-be nu metal anthem “Too Cold.” In more recent years, he’s found his most appropriate home yet on reality television, where being a flash in the pan novelty act is a godsend, not a handicap. Cool as Ice is an obvious choice to me as the best of Vanilla Ice’s cynical cash grabs since his star prematurely rose and fell with his first album. It turned his blatant commercialism into pure artistic expression and an exaggerated cultural time capsule that only gets better as the years roll on, like so many motorcycles riding until dawn. That virtue entirely rests on cinema’s unique crossroads of art & commerce. If the movie has one major fault it’s that it didn’t lean into its obvious status as a commercially-minded novelty even further to conclude with a performance of “Ice Ice Baby,” which is nowhere to be found on its soundtrack. That would’ve been the icing on the cake.
Alli: I really, really would have liked more info about that Pee Wee’s Playhouse garage. It’s out of nowhere. I know Roscoe and Mae are eccentric, yet awkward geniuses, but as said above even for this universe they’re strange. Also, this house and garage are supposed to be a literal Limbo, but between what? Is the world Johnny and his friends came from in some sort of chaos? What did they go through before happening upon this innocent town?
Boomer: I also love the art design of this movie. When mentioning to a friend that I had just watched Cool As Ice, he asked if he was misremembering the film in that he remembered one location as consisting of nothing but colors and shapes, which I was happy to point out was an actual set on this film. My favorite bits were the globes and doors out front, as well as the ludicrously sized salt shakers that at first seem like a perspective trick but ended up being a gag. So fun.
Britnee: I wish Naomi Campbell had a bigger part in this movie that just a small lip sync scene in the film’s opening. She should’ve been part of the motorcycle crew! Even though I know that wish will never come true, I love the hell out of this movie.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
-The Swampflix Crew