Cool as Ice is a colossally wrong-headed movie. Sure, it stars Vanilla Ice, but we know that. This alone is not what makes it wrong-headed. What makes it wrong-headed, broadly, is that it wishes to initiate itself into the grand cinematic tradition, and the American one, of sympathetic motorcycle riding rebels proving their innocent and righteous ways starring in films asking that outsider to bridge class boundaries and implicitly distance his or her self (almost always a “his”) from that outsider tradition in the process. In doing so, it essentially deals the outsider and his status a backhanded compliment, getting to have its cake and eat it too by vaguely enlightening itself and mainstream middlebrow Americans in the process without actually having to sacrifice its own safe, middlebrow identity or really do anything to live life on the edge. It is, in other words, a corporate, milquetoast tradition that pretends to be dangerous so that mainstream America can imbibe in Other-watching from a distance without actually having to do anything other than pat itself on the back for pretending to give a care about the well-being of that Other.
Oh yes, and that Other is played by Vanilla Ice, who, as the most popular and ubiquitous person in all of America in 1991, is clearly what bell hooks has in mind when she writes about “the Other” in the first place. Which isn’t a surprise, exactly; Ice and the pop variation on rap he represents has always been about vaguely gesturing toward resistance and outsider status without ever actually doing one single dangerous thing to live the life. Ice earned a name for himself as the “safe”, whitewashed variant to the legitimately artistic and confrontational genre of rap music while still pretending, himself, to be challenging and dangerous. So, of course, Vanilla Ice would want to place himself into this American tradition of courting lightweight, antiseptic, low-commitment danger without actually having to challenge anything. That was practically his identity from the very beginning, so, in this sense, Cool as Ice is about as note-perfect and textbook a case study for who Vanilla Ice is as anything possibly could hope to be. If that was the film’s goal, it achieves it perfectly.
Which brings us to the idea of a “good bad movie”. I have said before, and I will say again here, that a “good bad movie” is a movie that tends to have a colossally wrong-headed concept and an execution that distills that concept down, galvanizes it in its own acid, and commits without resistance or hesitation to that vision. It is a film that feels deeply personal, in other words, a film that represents the inner-machinations of a person without a clue given an external canvas to paint their world-view upon. It is a work that creates its own identity using its own tools, tools that it finds invigorating and perfect for itself no matter how deranged those tools, and that self, are.
A paragraph, incidentally, which sums up Cool as Ice in a hand-basket. Its failings are legion, but all of them coalesce into its particular understanding of what filmmaking entails, an understanding which comes from what dimension I do not know. For such a simple narrative of “boy gets with girl”, the film spends a remarkable amount of time doing nothing that vaguely moves this story forward at all. What it spends its time doing, now that is another question entirely, although being bland is not among them. It has not been but ten minutes of the film when Ice and his …friends? Crew? Family-on-wheels? Dance Troupe? Well, whatever they are, they end up in a suburban Pee-wee’s Playhouse of day-glo pastels and oblong shapes that approximates the platonic ideal of the early 1990s, and that is before mentioning the way they ride on pink and yellow tiger-stripped motorcycles and sit down on a couch backed by dictionary definitions that are super-imposed onto the wall behind them. Or the absolutely feverish energy by which the film cross-cuts between some of the group doing nothing and another member making a sandwich of equal parts peanut butter, pickles, sardines, mustard, and pineapple.
Perhaps it requires all of this set design shenanigans to distract itself from the fact that the impetus for the brewing romance in the tale involves Ice stealing a girl’s college scholarships to coerce her into falling in love with him. Or maybe it needs a distraction from the the absolutely dumb-founding material involving the girl’s parents and some sort of amorphous past guilt come back to haunt them and to let us know that respectable types have skeletons in the closet as well. Or the way the main female romantic interest for Ice’s character is asked to like him because of the needs of the screenplay, rather than because it makes any ounce of sense for her personality whatsoever (the film showing off its humanistic, charitable understanding of women as people here, no doubt). Or the way it introduces us to a funereal approximation of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” before showing tired old rock musicians up by traipsing into a “hip” version by Ice that is by any possible standard of the human imagination worse. Or its idea that going to a club and dancing is some variant of “debatable, risque activity” to fit the movie’s ballsy ’50s-by-way-of-’90s deconstruction of time sub-text. Or, best of all, the way Ice sneaks into his love interest’s house and at night and she wakes to him lounging in bed with her, something the movie does not seem to think is a problem, or think that she will view as a problem.
Whatever it is busy doing, it is absolutely impossible to turn away from, all the more so because the movie’s secret-weapon is always there giving in to the film and having so much to say about its identity in the process. Not Ice, not by any means, although his performance-art take on acting is never less than screen-grabbing. No, I speak of Janusz Kaminski. You know, one of the great modern cinematographers, a man with a passionate, densely present, romantic, screen-filling sense of perfect visual style that blends modern realism with old-school empathetic expressiveness. That Janusz Kaminski? Yes, and I have no idea what motivated him to turn to this project except a perverse desire to see what he could do with patently abysmal material. He was not yet famous at the time, and he clearly saw an opportunity for something special in all this.
Certainly, he is not treating it as a paycheck gig. The film’s idea of visual storytelling is, well let’s just call it “enhance everything that is the early ’90s” about everything, and Kaminski achieves this goal perfectly. Right from the opening music video montage, he’s already indulging himself by seeing just what artistry he can bring to a Vanilla Ice music video. Now, that sounds awful, but remember folks, craft matters, and if it is a Vanilla Ice music video, it is a very excitingly, invitingly filmed Vanilla Ice music video to say the least.
From there, Cool as Ice becomes a flowery, lush sense of everything that defines this period of time in the pop culture lexicon on display her from beginning to end, so much so that I think this might have been the intent from the very beginning. That, in the Vanilla Ice phenomenon, Kaminski saw an inescapable chance to divulge the essential essence of the period’s pop culture in a way that could self-consciously mark it as the romantic ideal of the time rather than the “real” thing (and this anti-realist style is intelligent and fitting, for there is absolutely nothing about the script than can remotely be called “realist”).
At the same time, it allots Kaminski the ability of marking the film as a knowing product of its time, exploring color in pulpy ways to concoct a pop cultural document that serves not to tell a story, but to reveal what the early 1990s thought about storytelling collectively. Even if intent was absent, there is a romantic montage midway though the film that could never have been lensed any year outside of 1991, and it is absolutely intoxicating. All of which says nothing about three or four genuinely great episodes of cross-cutting that invade various parts of the film with a certain alertness we would never expect going in. That, my friends, is how you make a good bad movie, with genuine craft competing with and running head first into an artless, craftless production altogether.
So how good is it really?: 1.5/5 (plenty bad and idiotic and all, although it is only occasionally out-and-out broken)
But how “good” is it?: 5/5 (I was moving between 4 and 4.5, but then the mid-film not-finished-house-in-middle-of-desert romantic tryst motorcycle-montage showcasing Kaminski at his damnedest and most accidentally perfect happened, and I knew what I had to do)