Thursday, April 15, 2010

Movie Review: Cool As Ice (1991)

Fantasmo All-Star/occasional guest co-host and speaker Tony Mercer uttered a profound statement at a recent Fantasmo, which served as somewhat of an a-ha moment for me. We were discussing James Cameron’s Avatar, specifically our lack of desire with respect to making an effort to see it. While the prospect of checking out the new technology was somewhat appealing, having to sit through a film that held no interest for us was not an enticing situation. This steered the conversation in the direction of our “responsibility” for keeping up with the popular film scene and emerging trends. As genre film fans there is an almost biological drive to see all films good and bad, in large part derived from the need to have a complete film vocabulary. In order to speak on film with some authority, in theory one must be versed in the subject via direct experience.

It was in light of these ideas that Tony said point blank that he “no longer had anything to prove.” Although this may not seem like much of a revelation, coming from someone like Tony who has an extensive knowledge of film this was nothing short of a bombshell. Again referring back to that almost biological drive, as an individual who has also suffered through a ridiculously large number of Z-grade films in the quest for truth, I had never taken the time to consider whether or not I had anything to prove/a responsibility for continuing to expand my horizons at all costs. I’m not sure I’m completely ready to adhere to the “Mercer Principle” as I shall refer to it henceforth, but I did skip Avatar without losing any sleep. However this philosophy was the source of some pause on my part prior to making good on my pledge to review the 1991 Vanilla Ice epic Cool As Ice, but a promise is a promise so here goes . . .

I’m not going to get into a big history lesson on Vanilla Ice’s career, but I will share thoughts on my personal experience with his work. Back in 1990 his album To the Extreme hit big with the single Ice Ice Baby launching him squarely into the spotlight. I was into alternative music so I didn’t pay much attention to it, to the extent that escaping the Vanilla Ice fever was possible. What I do remember about the period are two things. First I remember my friend Stan explaining to me the big controversy that Ice had ripped off the basic theme of the song from the Queen/David Bowie single Under Pressure. He told me all about this interview where Ice made the case that his song differed significantly on a few beats. If you listen to both I think you’ll find that this claim is dubious at best. Second, it was my freshman year at college and the guys in the dorm room next to mine loved Ice (or at least that song). Literally every 10 minutes or so you would hear the song start up, which if you remember it you can imagine how maddening that was.

With this in mind I came to have a real distaste for the Ice phenomenon. However one thing is certainly true, and that is I’ve always had a love for cult films, and a special love for B-movie style train wrecks. So I was immediately excited upon seeing a HUGE banner in our local theater in the fall of 1991, promoting Ice’s leading man debut in Cool As Ice (of which I had no prior knowledge in those pre-Internet days). It had a wonderfully silly tagline which suggested that to melt a heart of stone all you have to do is “just add ice.” Turns out “just adding ice” can do a lot of things in the fantasy world spun within the film, yet in reality it cannot generate a healthy return at the box office.

For the sake of full disclosure, I had some grounds to be excited other than the mere fact that Ice was coming out with this movie. Earlier in the year he had made his big screen debut in the mega-sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. To provide some context I was a light fan of those comics, enjoyed the first film to a fair degree, and was intrigued by the rather cryptic subtitle for the much anticipated sequel. These factors paled with regard to arousing my curiosity when compared to the knowledge that the film would mark the big screen debut of Vanilla Ice. I was blown away that a developing franchise such as Turtles would choose to embrace the artist when it could date the film for later generations, not to mention outrage fans on both sides of the equation. If you had inserted a timeless artist in there, say a Beatle for example, no big deal. But you wouldn’t catch me endorsing an appearance by guilty pleasure Kajagoogoo for example in one of the Superman films if such a thing had been considered. It just takes you as a viewer out of the experience by shifting the focus to the period of the film, rather than the quality of the filmmaking. Regardless his over-the-top cameo only served to excite the B-movie lover in me, enhancing the entertainment value of an otherwise lackluster sequel.

Having been thoroughly won over by his screen presence in Ooze, I was primed for Ice to take center stage in a film of his own. His transition from a one-hit-wonder rap performer, into a a developing multimedia juggernaut won my grudging respect to some degree. It thrust him from a simple lyricist into something much more interesting. By veering into other entertainment avenues, Ice was stretching to transform himself into a multi-faceted pop culture icon. I tend to be a fan of this kind of thing (e.g. Steven Seagal's efforts at music, energy drinks, and reality television), so I cut a lot of slack to those who attempt it even when they may fall short. As such I started to pay a little more attention to Ice post-Ooze. The mind reeled at how he would parlay his acquired taste style persona into a “mainstream” studio release. Sadly I would not find out until the film hit home video, as HUGE banner notwithstanding it never showed up at the local theater (turns out it was only released on 393 screens compared to the thousands customarily granted to blockbusters). Not surprisingly it tanked upon release, and was roundly dismissed by the critical community and already dwindling fan base.

I never will forget the afternoon myself and a few like-minded friends excitedly got our hands on the VHS at our local video store. No doubt the clerk thought we were off our collective rockers to be so amped about a film that was recently dismissed as a disaster. Nevertheless we gathered round the TV and, as I recall, had a grand old time enjoying the on screen antics of Mr. Ice. While it’s hard to remember specifics 20 years on, standout moments for me were discovering that Tremors star Michael Gross was a party to the proceedings, Ice’s frequent one-liners (e.g. when speaking to the leading lady in reference to her preppy boyfriend he says “lose that zero, and get with the hero,” or something to that effect), and the uncomfortable attempt to make Ice fit into the leading man mold in an awkward crime thriller/romantic comedy narrative. It’s this last point that distinguishes the film the most, as Cool As Ice ends up being a weird hodge podge of different genres. It’s a wacky musical in the vein of Help!, a romantic fish-out-of-water tale like Doc Hollywood, and a lackluster episode of Law and Order (on which I believe Mr. Gross has coincidentally been a guest star if I'm not mistaken). “Just add ice” to this equation and you get a movie going experience you are not likely to forget anytime soon.

For me it took about 20 years to forget, and given that it wasn’t available on video until recently (thanks to Itunes) my curiosity had returned. Would it live up to my hazy memories, or would it be an exercise in drudgery? Initially I was anxious to discover the answer, but in light of the “Mercer Principle” I began to wonder if this was something I needed to know or a quest I was required to undertake in order to prove something to myself. In other words, for the first time in a good while I seriously took stock of the auto-pilot mode I sometimes fall into when approaching B-movie viewing. To express this in another way I was reminded of a quote from Planet of the Apes when Landon is describing Dodge’s motivation for joining the space expedition. He says (paraphrasing) that Dodge would “walk naked into a volcano if he thought he could learn something no one else knew.” Well let’s get something clear upfront, that is not an accurate description of my attitude toward film exploration, but I do possess a certain degree of this quality. The result is that I will occasionally torture myself by struggling to watch the unwatchable, just to say I’ve been there and be able to talk with authority on a given subject. But how much is enough? I don’t claim to know the answer to this, but it apparently doesn’t stop with Cool As Ice so I soldiered on.

As previously mentioned, Cool As Ice marked the debut of Ice as feature film leading man, and also marked the end of that particular run. Things get off and running with a catchy opening dance sequence which deftly showcases the vocal stylings and cool moves of Ice (aka Johnny). When the credits have finished we find out that this is an underground club party, and Ice and his running crew depart shortly after his performance (although Ice lingers a bit to get the phone number of one of the ladies in attendance, to which his running crew in unison shrug incredulously). Upon leaving they hop on their outrageously painted motorcycles for a cross country odyssey to nowhere in particular, and along the way Ice harasses a young woman on horseback. He engages in a drag race with her (he on the road, her behind a fence in a pasture), and at the end he jumps the fence causing her to be thrown off the horse. This leads to an exchange where Ice expresses befuddlement at her subsequent anger, as apparently his potentially deadly stunt was intended to impress. After the incident the crew continues on and enters a small town where one of the bikes breaks down. Luckily they find a local senior couple who claim to repair bikes. These two are strangely reminiscent of Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida from Motel Hell, although much creepier if you can believe that. Regardless of warning signs indicating trouble, the crew commits to stay with the couple until the bike is fixed.

By an amazing coincidence it turns out that the young equestrian lady lives across the street. Ice proceeds to harass her (again) and her preppy boyfriend, who is quickly established as a real jerk (which is quite an accomplishment given Ice’s increasingly rude behavior). Ice cleverly steals her college scholarship application in a bid to get to know her and win her heart by “just adding ice.” Surprisingly this seems to work as she gives Ice a hard time later about his gambit, yet sends subtle signals that she secretly enjoys this questionable courtship ritual. Contributing to the plus category for Ice is the fact that the girl (aka Kathy) has a father (Michael Gross) who’s in the witness protection program. Apparently he duped some crooked cops in his past life, and has been in hiding ever since. Gross unwisely appears on television to heap praise on his daughter’s accomplishments, and his past returns to haunt him in the form of some gun-toting villains. This plays right into the plans of Ice, as he of course will be called upon to foil the thugs’ evil doings by “just adding ice," allowing him to win the hearts and minds of Kathy and family. Turns out that “just adding ice” goes a long way toward breaking down superficial boundaries and misgivings.

It likely comes as no shock when I tell you that Cool As Ice is not a great film in the sense of something like Bridge on the River Kwai, but surely no one would expect that it would be. The important question in my mind is whether it amounts to time well spent for people who appreciate B-films or are fans of Ice. On the latter I suspect that loyal Ice fans would like this as it showcases what he is known for. This is pure speculation on my part as I haven’t known any Ice fans since those guys in my dorm. While he still isn’t my particular cup of tea, I have to confess he comes off as an okay performer. At least he's invested 100% in the delivery of his particular services. And as a thespian he turned in a convincing performance as Vanilla Ice. On the former issue, as a B-film I can happily report Cool As Ice totally measures up. This is due to a couple of key ingredients:

1 – The mashup of genres within the film breeds a crazy finished product. We begin as a dance/rap film, move to the classic outsider whose car breaks down in a small town scenario, to Romeo and Juliet love story, to crime thriller, etc. If you don’t like any given plot thread just wait and it will come back around to the genre you enjoy. In the end this is a movie that cannot be easily categorized, which is to its credit. Any cult film worth its salt, particularly those of the musical variety, defies classification. This is no Phantom of the Paradise mind you, but it holds your attention.

2 – Ice is uniformly rude to everyone he meets. This is the aspect that sealed the deal in winning me over. A lot of times when you have one of these star vehicles for a music personality, it’s usually geared to make the star appealing to a wider audience as well as fans. Take for example the early 80’s blockbuster Purple Rain. Prince was/is one of those rock stars who maintains a wild public image. While he still had rock star attitude in Purple Rain, he also turned in a mostly effective dramatic performance that humanized him to a degree. This only added to his already off the charts success level at the time. Conversely Cool As Ice is determined to present Ice in the most unflattering light possible. He treats everyone with disrespect regardless to their status as friend or foe. Granted he proves heroic in the end, but there’s a lot of “ice added” before the bad guys are defeated. I was just floored at how the show makes no attempt to make Ice palatable to a broader demographic. Ice is what you see, and Ice is what you get. Deal with it.

Despite the fact that it was a little harder than usual to get myself excited about watching what was sure to be a dreadful movie, Cool As Ice served as a reminder to me that being a B-movie fan is an enterprise that necessarily entails risk. All indicators were that I was setting myself up for 90 minutes of my life I would never get back (or 180 if you take into account I have now seen it twice). Thankfully the journey was worth taking from the standpoint of entertainment value. Although this situation came out with a happy ending, I have a feeling that as time marches onward I will find myself more and more an adherent to the “Mercer Principle.” Let’s face it after you’ve endured a number of unwatchable films becoming jaded is an inevitable result. Thanks to the endless bounty of obscure B-movies made available through the marketplace in recent years, this viewer may indeed have a few more things “left to prove.” Even so I can acknowledge with respect to the “Mercer Principle” that I have begun to draw my line in the sand . . . I still haven’t seen Avatar. Perhaps if Cameron had only “just added ice?”


Daniel said...

Jim you are my hero. I don't think I have the fortitude to sit through anything with Vanilla Ice in it. You Da Man!

Jim Blanton said...

Anything I can do to save others from a similar fate : ) From now on though my solution to life's bumps in the road will be to "just add ice."