Chill Out With a So-Bad-It’s-Good Masterpiece
DIRECTOR: DAVID KELLOGG/1991
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 4, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Much like there are only six basic stories, there are also only three kinds of movies:
- Good movies
- Bad movies that think they’re good movies
- Bad movies that know they’re bad movies
Good movies can be artistic achievements like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, or they can be audience-pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Avengers, but either way, pretty much everyone agrees they’re successful. Bad movies that think they’re good movies are trickier to spot (and sometimes tricky to agree on) because their weak storytelling hides behind top-notch special effects, talented people, and/or Very Important Subject Matter. They can be blockbusters or self-serious awards bait, but either way, these movies want a rep they can’t back up. But bad movies that know they’re bad—well, they’re special. Instead of pretending, they embrace their true identities. They lean into their corny dialogue, hammy performances, and silly stories to become more delightful sums than any of their parts could be alone. This, my friends, is where we begin our discussion of Cool as Ice.
It’s a surrealist
feverfrozen dream Fellini could never have imagined, and I can’t help but love its commitment to its own vapidity.
No one on Earth who has seen at least three movies would say Cool as Ice is a good movie. The nonsensical plot is built on ice too thin to hold any ideas, yet there’s still too much story. The 91 minutes are meant to skate on Vanilla Ice’s charisma, but his haircut demands more attention than his music. I’m sure no one involved in making this box office bomb meant to make slush, but they sure did—and let me be the hail it a masterpiece.
Everything you need to know about this movie is in its tagline: “When a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only way to melt it. Just add ice.” Nothing about that metaphor makes a lick of sense, but it’s committed to its premise till its hard-stop-period end. Cool as Ice opens and closes with dance-filled music videos featuring cameos from supermodels like Naomi Campbell and plows through every moment in between with the same style and level of realism. For example, director David Kellogg shoots at Dutch angles in many key moments, though it’s not to evoke the legacy of film masters—it’s to make us feel like we’re watching a long stretch of early ‘90s VH1 programming sans commercials.
At the start of this programming, we meet Vanilla Ice—or “Johnny,” as he’s called for no reason—riding out of the desert on his highlighter-hued motorcycle. There’s no indication of a past before he appears , and we will never explore his identity or future. Is he a spiritual entity like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life? A character literally pulled out of a screen like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Last Action Hero? A symbolic vision like the motorcycle-riding fiend in Raising Arizona? Any theory is valid with the lack of info we get when this ghost rides into a studio backlot attempting to pass for a small town.
Though Johnny is set up like the lead, our true POV character is Kathy (Kristin Minter), a horse-riding teen doing her best impression of Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie. She’s dating a Plaid Blazer, but true to the tagline, her heart of stone is no match for Johnny’s cool guy smirks. They begin a courtship of music video dates, mostly at an abandoned construction site(?). Her parents disapprove, but not for the reasons you’d expect, like his freewheeling without a helmet or the leather jacket covered with phrases like “sex me up,” “down by law” and “yep.” In a twist no one asked for (spoiler alert!), her parents reveal they’re in the Witness Protection Program and believe Johnny is connected with some cronies who rolled into town at the same time. This subplot is both super weird and irrelevant to anyone choosing to watch a movie starring Vanilla Ice—so much so I’d bet the $1.2 million domestic gross it was both the first and last idea discussed when trying to make this a feature length production—and since it’s based on a misunderstanding, every character is exactly the same as at the beginning.
Watching 30 years later, it’s easy to forget Vanilla Ice was a big deal in 1991. Cool as Ice came out less than a year after “Ice Ice Baby” hit #1 on the charts, and it’s operating under the assumption Robert Van Winkle’s career will only get colder. With the exception of a few scenes of Kathy’s parents fretting at the windows, this movie is dedicated to the worship of music’s flavor of the moment. With three mic-in-hand performances and additional soundtrack credits, this is the Vanilla Ice Variety Hour, and any shot not dedicated to him feels like filler. Every other character is meant to fade into the background of his icy aura, even poor Kathy, whose most memorable moment comes when Johnny climbs through her window, lies in her bed, and wakes her by dropping an ice cube in her mouth. Even his motorcycle posse—who, according to the credits, do have names—are treated like accessories instead of friends. They spend most of the film in interstitial montages set in an unidentified room covered in quotable wallpaper. Presumably, they’re passing the time as their motorcycles are being repaired, and they spend that time in no fewer ways than dancing, building a house of cards, and eating a peanut butter pickle mustard sardine pineapple sandwich. What kind of purgatory is this?
If the makers of Cool as Ice were not interested in building tension or characters arcs, what were they here for? For one, the lewks. Vanilla Ice might be handsome, but who could tell beneath all that Blue Steel and crap (the precise term) he’s wearing? He and his pals sport capital-F Fashun, including the aforementioned haircut (for lack of a better word), a no-explanation headlamp/scuba goggle getup, and overalls swiped from the Beetlejuice set that say “oh yeah” only when folded down. The filmmakers also showed up for the avant-garde production design. Why does someone use a foot-tall salt shaker? Why is there a building with a map on its roof on a street lined with globes on fence posts? This eccentric set is just a few degrees south of Whoville, and if Johnny isn’t walking with the gait of trying to keep his pants up, he’s jouncing around it with an elasticity more appropriate for a trampoline.
And what are we here for? In short, we’re here for a world that has gone 1000% in on every one of its preposterous details, which is why I volunteered to review this Blu-ray even though I’d laughed through this absurdist feature before. It’s a surrealist
fever frozen dream Fellini could never have imagined, and I can’t help but love its commitment to its own vapidity. Even if the filmmakers had no idea, the movie knows it’s bad, and I have no qualms with anyone who wants to call it “so bad it’s good.” To Kino Lorber’s credit, the commentary track from film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Joshua Nelson brings more thought than you’d expect to a vanity project like this. Instead of dunking on it, they provide context about the MTV era, the legacy of pop star movies (à la Elvis), and the sociopolitical implications of Vanilla Ice’s very white presence in the world of hip hop (a topic Jim Carrey might have been aware of, but, believe me, this film has zero awareness of). I don’t keep every Blu-ray I review, but partly for their insight, I’m keeping Cool as Ice in my collection because nothing’s as cool as hanging out in a world constructed with the logic of a ‘90s music video.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality and are included only to represent the film itself.