Earlier this month, when Vanilla Ice announced via Twitter that he was boldly defying instructions to evacuate his Florida home in the face of Hurricane Matthew, it not only inspired what had to be the greatest (and possibly also the most depressing) tweet ever made by the Florida Democratic Party, but it also made one hope that it might really be a sneaky promo for an upcoming Weather Channel series wherein the rapper and reality TV star goes head to head with natural disasters.
Alas, “The Ice Storm” (or whatever they might call it) doesn’t actually seem to be in the works. But if it were, you can bet your last bong hit that it would at least be more entertaining than Cool as Ice, the rapper’s ill-fated 1991 bid for cinematic stardom. Released 25 years ago today, the film flopped spectacularly with critics and audiences alike, ranking only fourteenth among that week’s new releases — nine spots behind Ernest Scared Stupid — and ultimately failing to recoup even a quarter of its modest $6 million production budget at the box office.
Coming roughly a month after Nirvana’s Nevermind unexpectedly exploded out of the gates, the movie’s box-office thud felt like part of the same pop-cultural paradigm shift. Less than a year earlier, Vanilla Ice and his bland brand of pop-rap had been all but inescapable: “Ice Ice Baby,” his lunkheaded but catchy track built around the sampled bassline from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” topped the US pop charts in the fall of 1990, becoming the first hip-hop single ever to do so. The album that spawned it, the laughably-titled To the Extreme, spent 16 weeks at Number One on the Billboard 200, selling over seven million copies in the US alone.
As the acceptable white face of mainstream hip-hop, Ice (born Robert Van Winkle) scored endorsement deals with Coca-Cola and Nike, landed a part in Teenage Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze, and even dated Madonna for eight months. (The pair reportedly broke up over his objections to her coffee table book Sex, in which he also appeared.) Forbes magazine’s 1991 list of highest-paid entertainers had Ice at number 40, with earnings of $18 million — though several of those millions apparently went into the pocket of Suge Knight, who allegedly shook Ice down for the publishing rights to “Ice Ice Baby,” then used the proceeds to help launch Death Row Records.
Coming as it did during what’s now generally viewed as the “golden age” of hip-hop, Ice’s massive overnight success felt like a slap in the face to fans of Public Enemy, West Coast gangsta rap, the Native Tongues crew – or really, any rap artists who were harder, smarter and/or real-er than M.C. Hammer. 3rd Bass summed up the hip-hop community’s dim view of all things Ice with their 1991 hit “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which contained such lines as “I got a squad with a list of complainers/I should have started RAPE: Rappers Against Phony Entertainers,” and whose video featured Henry Rollins in a hilarious cameo as a Vanilla Ice lookalike.
Though Ice saw himself as a legit rapper, his label, SBK Records, had little interest in bolstering his credibility beyond disseminating a few false claims about his “ghetto” upbringing. At the time, the mainstream music biz still primarily viewed rap artists as novelty acts (a la Tone-Loc and Young MC), and SBK clearly wanted to squeeze as much cash out of Vanilla Ice as they could before he became yesterday’s Kangol. In March 1991, just six months after the release of To the Extreme, SBK rushed out Extremely Live, a thoroughly inessential live album padded out with Ice’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” presented in both studio and concert versions. (Though widely excoriated by critics, the record still sold well enough to reach #30 on the Billboard 200.) A month later, production began on Cool as Ice; the film was co-produced by Koppleman/Bandier-Carnegie Pictures, an entity headed by SBK honchos Charles Koppleman and Martin Bandier.
Watching the film now, a quarter-century after its initial release, it’s kind of shocking to see just how shoddy the whole thing is, even by popstar cash-in standards. The basic plot resembles one of Elvis’ least memorable films crossed with a Lifetime movie: Traveling rapper Johnny (Ice, in all his flat-topped, Stussy-swathed glory) romances a small-town girl (Kristin Minter, whose Wikipedia bio includes this downer of a sentence: “She is best known for playing the role of Kathy Winslow in the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice“), but she can’t keep seeing him because her dad (Family Ties patriarch Michael Gross) is in the witness-protection program.
Like most rappers, Johnny and his posse go from gig to gig via motorcycle. But when one of their bikes breaks down in Kathy’s town, they’re forced to cool their heels (and eat disgusting sandwiches) at the Pee Wee’s Playhouse-esque home of eccentric motorcycle repairman Roscoe (Sydney Lassick). Johnny, who initially tries – and surprisingly fails – to impress Kathy by spooking her horse, spends most of this unscheduled downtime laying siege to her heart, much to the displeasure of her creepy, Eric Trump-like boyfriend (John Haymes Newton). Using such time-honored tactics as stealing her organizer, sneaking into her bedroom, and rocking the mic at the local all-ages juice bar, Johnny gradually makes headway with Kathy, at least until her paranoid dad makes her call it off. But then Johnny and his posse (spoiler alert!) save Kathy’s little brother from a pair of kidnappers, and everything’s cool, yo. Cool as ice, in fact.
The first full-length feature by video director David Kellogg (who would go on to direct 1999’s Inspector Gadget), Cool As Ice unsurprisingly works best during its musical numbers, like the film’s energetically choreographed opening sequence, which features supermodel Naomi Campbell guesting on “Get Loose.” There’s some decent motorcycle stunt work throughout the film, as well; but in scenes with actual dialogue, the tone (and look) veers wildly between teen rom-com, low-budget suspense thriller and an aesthetic that might well be described as “early David Lee Roth video”. There’s even a profoundly embarrassing sequence in which Johnny and Kathy frolic in slo-mo around a building site on the edge of the desert — presumably because nothing reflects the caution-to-the-wind madness of falling in love quite like the possibility of stepping on a stray nail.
The dialogue, penned by 21 Jump Street writer David Stenn, mostly sounds like it was lazily tossed off during an afternoon at the pool, with Ice-isms like “Drop that zero and get with the hero” subsequently shoehorned in for added “flava.” (You could make a good drinking game out of all the “yep yep”s that he utters throughout the film.) Stenn’s script is filled with low-rent aphorisms that seem to be trying to channel Marlon Brando in The Wild One, another film about bad boys on motorcycles … and there the comparison ends. “If you ain’t true to yourself, then you ain’t true to nobody,” Johnny counsels Kathy at one point, a sage bit of wisdom rivaled only by the maxim that he drops while staking out the kidnappers’ hiding place: “Just because we can’t hear them doesn’t mean they’re not here.” It’s so true, homeboy!
The shame here is that it wastes the talents of some legitimately good actors. Candy Clark, who had previously done great work in Fat City, American Graffiti and the David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth, doesn’t get to do much as Kathy’s mom besides look concerned; rapper/actor Deezer D (who would later appear in the gangsta rap comedies Fear of a Black Hat and CB4) and veteran character actors like Sydney Lassick, Dody Goodman (who plays Roscoe’s ditzy wife) and S.A. Griffin (one of the kidnappers) don’t have much to work with, either. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski would later go on to serve as the director of photography on Schindler’s List, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan; the score was provided by legendary jazz bassist and film composer Stanley Clarke. Several of these folks were able to shake off the stink of this misbegotten project and move on. The movie’s star was not as lucky.
Indeed, the most unexpected thing about re-watching Cool as Ice a quarter century after the fact is that you actually wind up feeling kind of bad for Vanilla Ice. He may look absolutely ridiculous in his designer motorcycle jackets, multi-colored clown pants and Gaultier shades, but the guy’s still got some undeniable onscreen charisma. (Which is why, 25 years later, he still keeps popping up on reality shows like Dancing With the Stars and Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.) Watching him now, you no longer see Ice as the premier hip-hop sellout villain of 1990-91, a street-culture charlatan who became labeled the scapegoat for all that is foul and phony about the music business. Instead, you simply see a goofy kid who knows he’s struck gold beyond his wildest dreams, and just as completely clueless as to how short-lived his ride at the top is actually going to be.
And for whatever else you say about this cinematic Hindenberg, you can’t dog our man for not trying: Even when he’s not rapping or dancing, even in the silliest scenes with the dopiest (as opposed to dope-est) lines, Ice gamely gives the proverbial 110 percent. He thinks this film is his ticket to stardom rather than his express train to oblivion. He has no idea that his record company is simply milking him for whatever teen appeal he has left, or that Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch will render him redundant by offering a tougher, slightly more credible strain of early Nineties pop hip-hop. (The shirtless kid from Boston had done time, yo!) He has no idea that, less than three years later, he will be desperately trying to rebrand himself as a blunted and dreadlocked Cypress Hill type, only to be met with howls of derision from the critics and utter disinterest from his former audience.
“Tell me one thing,” Johnny asks Kathy at one point. “Who you being true to now?” Cool as Ice makes you wonder if, at the height of his short-lived pop reign, Vanilla Ice ever asked himself the same question.