When you first hear that the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One was remade in the early 90s as a movie starring Vanilla Ice it feels as if some kind of blasphemy has been committed. Brando is long regarded to be one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. Ice is a white boy rapper one-hit-wonder who’s been striving for decades to recapture his initial popularity that peaked with “Ice Ice Baby.” There’s something culturally perverse about conflating those two personalities, as if someone were reimagining Citizen Kane with Justin Bieber in the Orson Welles role. At its heart, though, the Marlon Brando picture was the exact kind of teenybopper media Cool as Ice was attempting to cheaply & effortlessly bring back to the screen, striking while the iron was hot on Vanilla Ice’s flash in the pan popularity. The dirty secret, too, is that although Brando is clearly the superior craftsman of the pair, Cool as Ice may very well be the better film. It’s at least debatable.
The Wild One is a slightly more prestigious version of the exploitation-minded “road to ruin” pictures, where a virtuous teenage girl is tempted down a dangerous path by the promise of a more exciting, sinful life. Marlon Brando embodies that sinful excitement. He’s cool; he’s beautiful; he’s dressed like a Discipline Daddy. For a movie with essentially no plot outside an overall sense of stasis, it’s insane how much of a cultural icon Brando’s puppy-eyed badboy presence was able to make out of The Wild One. The film’s rival motorcycle gangs, The Beetles & The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, have inspired the names of world-famous rock ‘n roll bands. Brando’s sideburns & pointless rebellious bravado inspired much of Elvis’s soon-to-come gimmick. The movie itself is also said to have inspired the birth of the outlaw biker exploitation film genre, which eventually hit its peak with the New Hollywood milestone Easy Rider. All that happens in the movie is that Brando’s motorcycle gang is stranded in a small town along with their most bitter rivals. While waiting for one member to recover from an injury, Brando flirts with a local waitress and the violence between the gangs escalates from hooliganism to someone actually getting critically hurt when the townspeople (somewhat rightfully) attempt to get them in trouble for raising hell. At the end, they leave and move onto the next town. The Wild One is not at all focused on telling a story. It’s a movie that gets by entirely on a youthful sense of style, which made it the perfect candidate to be adapted for a Vanilla Ice vehicle.
Cool as Ice struggles to be that relaxed about plotting, but it’s not that far behind. The movie starts with the exact standard motorcycle gang invades a small town dynamic of The Wild One (even keeping the central love interests’ names as Kathy and Johnny), just with a much smaller cast. In the third act, though, the movie feels a need to create a kidnapping crisis involving shady adults with hidden past identities to add more structure to its gleefully loose acts of teenage rebellion & romance. These are two films about style, purely so. In The Wild One, a gang of teenage, leather-clad bikers drink mountains of beers, hop around on pogo sticks, randomly pick fist fights, and listen to jazzy beatnik tunes on a jukebox. A lot of what makes Cool as Ice fun to watch is its nonstop barrage of similarly hip 90s fashion, which is a much more brightly colored version of biker chic. For instance, Vanilla Ice also dons a leather jacket in the film, but instead of it being monogramed “Johnny” like Brando’s, it reads phrases like “SEX,” “LUST,” and “YEP, YEP” in giant, tacky block letters on every possible surface. Cool as Ice minimizes the drunken brawling of The Wild One (a reckless energy that got the Brando film saddled with an X-rating in the UK), but finds its own sense of non-kid friendly edge in its blatant, omnipresent sexuality. You’d also think that the hip-hop flavor of Cool as Ice would feel oddly out of place with the Brando original, but that film is loaded with moments of tough guy bikers “scatting jive” over a jazzy backbeat, which is more or less in the same spirit. Forgetting the dissonance in Vanilla Ice & Marlon Brando’s reputations as real life personalities for a minute, the way Cool as Ice adapts The Wild One to a 90s Attitude™ isn’t blasphemous at all. The two films are oddly in sync.
A young Marlon Brando is obviously a better candidate for Commander of Eternal Cool than a young Vanilla Ice and, as the superior actor, he always had a better chance of making his role as Johnny an iconic one. Even on a dialogue level, his flippant response to the question, “What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?” is much more likely to go down in history than Ice’s “Drop that zero and get with the hero.” The downright gorgeous Janusz Kazinski cinematograpy and Pee-wee’s Playhouse style set design of Cool as Ice elevates the film above any ground lost by its star’s unconvincing Brando bravado, though. These are two near-plotless films about outlandish young weirdos chaotically laughing in the face of every adult they encounter, wearing ridiculous (and ridiculously dated) fashion, and searching for moments of fleeting romance before heading to the next town. The Wild One has a better lead performance and Cool as Ice has the better visual palette. Neither arise too high above the status of teen culture time capsules, but what’s surprising is how well a Vanilla Ice vehicle holds its own against what’s considered to be one of Marlon Brando’s most iconic leading man roles. If the debate of which film were better could be settled by a dance-off I have no doubt Vanilla Ice would win with ease, but it’s insane that the two films’ quality levels were close enough for that to even be a question.
For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this episode of the We Love to Watch podcast that covers similar themes of artful commercialism.