Awesome Garbage: Cool as Ice

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At one point in the history of America–specifically the beautiful, stupid early 90s–there was an awkward transition in pop culture when rap music was something on the verge of being a legitimate genre and something entertainers aped to seem hip without actually working too hard at making their rap good or authentic. While Will Smith was a likable personality, his rap “career” was really a stepping stone to a far more successful acting career. MC Hammer had the skills to pay the bills (well, at least for a little while), but he’s not revered for his great rapping talent in the 21st century. The trend in rap and hip-hop circa 1990 was to ease the country at large into these genres by introducing it through clean, inoffensive, easy-to-follow rhyming couplets and upbeat drum loops before dropping the seismic hammer that was Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and Biggy Smalls.  

But first pop culture had to endure the shameful rapping stylistics of Vanilla Ice. Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that Ice (real name Matthew Van Winkle, which is a much better name than his silly stage name) got as far as he did in his career. If someone tried to pull his lame act in modern times, he would most likely be soundly mocked in his first YouTube video and then quit his aspirations long before it got as far as he did with his limited appeal.

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You may already be familiar with what Vanilla Ice was in pop culture history, but just to let it sink in before this article/recap goes any further, click here and watch as long as you can stand it. To modern ears it sounds like hip-hop for babies. But with the privilege of hindsight, think about this: that song was the first hip hop single to top the Billboard charts in history and its album spent sixteen weeks at #1 on the charts. It sold eleven million copies.

It’s staggering to imagine a time in history where this was considered 1) good music, 2) worthy of gigantic success, and 3) something people would listen to unironically. But such was life in 1990: the 80’s had just barely ended and America was still a year away from grunge music and two years away from Bill Clinton in the White House. The country flailed away like a kid going through puberty, trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, and taking a tacky misstep to distinguish itself from the previous decade with ill-advised musical, aesthetic, and sartorial choices as a result. It was literally Vanilla Ice being considered cool before Nirvana stepped in and reminded everybody what good music  was supposed to sound like and what being cool looked like.

And it being the 1990s–and the late 20th century in America in general–we were a country with almost too much money on its hands and limited media outlets to which we could turn. Some distinguished capitalists got together and, combined with Universal Studios, decided that what this young rapping fellow needed was to star in a feature film.

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The problem was, by the time the movie came out, the cultural moment had passed for Vanilla Ice to be considered “cool”–he already showed up at the end of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, for cripes sake, what did he want, the moon? Released October 18, 1991, Cool as Ice found itself in a radically different culture than the one Vanilla Ice had reigned supreme just a year earlier, with the sound from Seattle quickly ascending to the spot it would largely hold until the end of the decade and the youth of America realizing that 8-ball jackets, motorcycles, and cheesy white boy hip-hop were decidedly embarrassing for everyone involved. Of course, it also doesn’t help that Cool as Ice is a terrible movie.

Awesome Garbage: Cool as Ice

How to quantify a movie that has no other raison d’être than to promote the person that’s starring in it? The plot is paper-thin and hacky, the direction is frankly bizarre at times, and whoever thought an audience would willingly pay money to watch this movie grossly overestimated the appeal of Vanilla Van Winkle.

Speaking of gross, Michael “Family Ties” Gross is in this film, which would be surprising if it it weren’t superseded by the fact that the director of photography eventually went on to be the cinematographer for Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Minority Report, which is downright mind-blowing. Maybe he was suffering from a congenital eye disease when working on Cool as Ice.

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Anyway, Cool as Ice follows the adventures of Johnny Van Owen, a rapper and motorcyclist, as he and his backup band ride through the Midwest between gigs until one of their stupid motorcycles break down. They get trapped in some crummy small town and just…hang out…until the cycle is repaired. Johnny meets Kathy, an honor student, and strikes up a romance with her against the wishes of her father (Gross) and her boyfriend (some choad). Oh, and the dad’s in the Witness Protection Program so some mafia types also show up. Will Johnny blandly save the day? Perhaps with the power of motorcycles and rap?

Anyway, the world-class zilch Johnny Van Owen (who I will just refer to from here on out as Vanilla Ice because does it matter?) has just finished some gig and after a  Naomi “Why am I here?”Campbell cameo writhes and speak-sings a song while nobodies dance in slow-motion during the credits, which is edited in headache-inducing seizure style, the film starts proper. Vanilla Ice and his backup band/gang zoom on their trikes through the American Midwest and Ice comes across Kathy, who is riding her horse. So he does what any sane person trying to court a partner does and startles her horse with his aggressive growling motorcycle until the horse throws Kathy, which surely should end in a severe spinal injury, but instead she looks up at him and says you jerk while Vanilla Ice stares at her jerkily and doesn’t lower himself to apologize.

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The motorcycle gang (who are all black, possibly to provide much-needed credibility to Ice’s charade) rides into a town whose inhabitants stare at their funky freshness with mouths agape. Because racism? Thankfully, this perspective isn’t explored any further for the sake of the imagined audience. Some elderly maniacs crawl out of their cereal box insanity of a home to mistake the motorcycle gang with an anonymous seller of a bike in pre-Craigslist times, so who knows what’s up with these two? Anyway, they are eccentrics with a PeeWee’s Playhouse domicile and invite the gang to live there until they get the bike fixed due to plot convenience.

This house is wacky in the way that people who don’t live in a planned community or have neighbors that don’t care a house on their block has a row of doors leading into each other on the front lawn or a map of the world painted on the roof. These people are demented but “wacky older person” was a trope that served 90’s movies well.

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It’s hard to continue recapping this movie without mentioning that pointless scenes go on forever to pad its running time. One of the guys in Ice’s band makes a disgusting sandwich out of peanut butter, pickles, and sardines; Vanilla Ice spins around aimlessly in an undefined space; the elderly bickering couple work on the bike. Who cares?

Driving by is Kathy in her boyfriend Jerkface Smugman’s convertible and, conveniently enough, she lives just down the road from those color-blind elderly maniacs that Ice & Co. are staying with! Ice shows up during a built-in conflict argument between the female protagonist and the male antagonist. When Ice shows up on-screen to introduce himself to the plot engine, a hip-hop beat starts up behind him, which is unintentionally hilarious. So he comes across as human garbage but delivers the famous line, “Drop that zero and get with the hero,” which is something only the worst kind of person would ever say out loud to another human being.

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Anywhoo, Ice goes back to the house that madness built and boasts that he lifted Kathy’s black book to intrude on her life further without consent and to let everyone know that he’s a thief. And then an obnoxious scene detailing Kathy’s idiotic domestic scene happens in throw-uppable fast motion. Then the family watches Kathy’s interview airing on the local news for being an honor student and equestrian because this is the kind of thing that 90’s movies thought news outlets covered/it’s a shortcut to advance the plot.

Ice sees this interview and he gets kind of sad while her dad, Michael Gross, is shown on TV and for some reason this local broadcast is being seen by some bad guy that can recognize him. Because he’s in the Witness Protection Program. So wouldn’t a central tenet of being in the witness protection program be one that prohibits one from appearing on broadcast television? Also, what’s the reach of this local news program? Of course, he gets a threatening phone call immediately but then acts like a deflecting duck when his family asks what’s wrong. I mean, surely his wife knows they’re in the Witness Protection Program, right? None of this makes logical sense but everyone, from the screenwriter to the director to the actors, got paid so they must have just cashed the check and was glad nobody was asking the hard questions that would require more work to fix the myriad problems that exist in the final product.

So after dinner, Kathy realizes her black book is missing and that the idiotic stranger must have stolen it, and here we are in the House of Nonsense where more filler material about how wacky these old people are occurs. For they’ve disassembled the bike completely, and the scene has cartoonish wah-wah music playing in the background. We’re only 20 minutes into the movie. When will it end? Also, we get a scene of the gangster hitmen worming their way towards the town Michael Gross lives in to kill him. Joyless, humorless “comedy” occurs before this scene mercifully ends, as well.

Vanilla Ice announces to his posse that he’s going across the street to, “schling a schlong,” which isn’t a phrase I’ve ever heard before, and again the hilarious hip-hop music plays behind him as he walks across the street. He pounds on the door–once–and says yo, where’s Kat at? and makes a terrible impression on the mother but finds a fast fan in her little brother, who squeals to him where Kathy is. Cue hip-hop instrumental as he walks away from the house and chats with the hitmen, who are hanging out in front of Michael Gross’s family house, who looks outside and sees Ice talking to the hitmen and I wonder if this is going to lead to a misunderstanding??? Of course it will.

So to the, uh, Sugar Shack, some lame club where a band that I’d much rather see perform over Vanilla Ice any day is playing a purposely ridiculous song and is the first genuinely funny thing in the movie. Ice cruises in with his posse while Kathy’s boyfriend tries his best peer pressure technique to get her to drink booze. She and Ice lock eyes and, well, that’s the end of that scene.

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BACK AT MICHAEL GROSS’S HOUSE because we need to start the plot at some point, the hitmen/gangsters/whatever threaten him and his wife and neither of these people seem like they looked over the Witness Protection Program pamphlets about what to do when their killers track them down.

BACK AT THE CLUB, Ice and his posse unplug the funny lame band and take the stage to play their unfunny lame version of hip-hop. Vanilla Ice looks like a damn goon when he’s dancing and it’s insane to think he made money doing this at some point. It’s gloriously stupid and goes on for far too long, particularly when he pulls Kathy into his eternal embarrassment, thus taking down her career in the process.

Kathy says OK enough of this nonsense, please give me my organizer back. They “flirt” in the way snowmen are people and the scene ends with her jerkface boyfriend pulling her out of there because we have to understand that he’s the bad guy. He’s kind of loaded and gives her a load of garbage in the parking lot, demanding that she gets in the car so they can both die together, but Kathy–being slightly smarter than kelp–walks away from this creep of the week.

So she’s walking down the middle of the road, as you do in the middle of the night, and the hitmen dudes are creeping up on her to taunt a person who has no idea who they are or what they’re doing, but thankfully Ice shows up to save her with his motorcycle. Wait, why did he intervene? Did she think she was in danger? ARE THEY BOTH PSYCHIC?!

She enters the house and her parents are sitting in the dark like people in antidepressant medication commercials do. Michael Gross gives her the third degree about who Ice is without providing any context or information that he’s in the Witness Protection Program and killers are after him. So she just thinks her parents are being overbearing instead of being afraid for their lives, which is not great parenting.

Ice goes back to the Sugar Shack to catch up with his homies (wait, was he driving his motorcycle  back to the weird old people’s house if his posse was still at the club?) and sees drunk Jerkface and his crew smashing up one of said homies’ bikes real good, hooting and hollering in the process. So now they have another bike to repair? Does this mean more scenes with those old people whose schtick has already worn thin? What do you mean, there’s another 50 minutes left in this movie??

Long story short: Jerkface Smugman and his pals get their clocks cleaned by our rapping “hero” at this point, with instrumental hip-hop playing behind Ice, which is still funny every time it happens. The weird thing is, Ice just leaves at the end of the scene and doesn’t even retrieve his friends inside or let them know one of their bikes has been trashed.

But never mind all of that! Vanilla Ice literally breaks into Kathy’s bedroom early in the morning and sticks an ice cube in her mouth to wake her up. What is with you, movie? He lays his filthy body down on her bed and gives her the darned organizer back, and I just realize that he hasn’t changed his clothes since he first appeared on-screen some days ago. So I guess he really does have a filthy body.

They innocuously flirt instead of Kathy calling the police or her dad blowing Ice’s head off with a shotgun because, you know, bad men have literally shown up at his doorstep the night before to threaten his and his family’s life. What to do, what to do? The answer Kathy comes up with is start undressing in front of Vanilla Ice. But her little brother just bursts into the room and kisses up to Ice because, I don’t know, they needed a trait to give the kid? Oh, and the kid uses the phrase “making sex” in this scene because why not? We’re already this far into this drek.

How to surmise what happens next? OK, here goes: Kathy and Ice go on a motorcycle ride and then flirt while swinging around in the framing of a housing site. It looks like a commercial for an unappealing clothing line that came out in 1991 before its factory was burned down by its workers out of protest. Again: the director of photography was the cinematographer for masterpieces like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Knowing this, you may feel a cognitive dissonance on the level of nuclear fission when watching this scene. Ice suggests he doesn’t have a family, which counts as character development. Then I guess they’re in love? This film’s shallower than a kiddie pool.

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The hitmen are still outside Michael Gross’s house and my God, he hasn’t called the police yet? Or the feds? What’s the point of being in the Witness Protection Program at this point? Is it the free house? Anyway, Ice drops off Kathy and she gives him a ring and blah blah you know how this goes. Michael Gross interrupts a kiss and then lays into Vanilla Ice, as any decent father would, only here’s that misunderstanding where he thinks Ice is with the hitmen. And because Jerkface got hospitalized after getting a nice beating from Ice, he’s not looking very good to anyone in the Michael Gross household. Did he receive this family as part of his entrance into the Witness Protection Program? Our sources say yes.

The mom finally comes to the conclusion that they should let their daughter know that they’re about to be murdered, but enough of that: time to see the eccentric elderly lady do some hip-hop dancing! Then Michael Gross tells his daughter the truth, she flips her wig, and how much more time in this movie? 36 minutes? Oh, man! Also, he and his wife entered the WPP when the mother was pregnant, so they’ve been in the program for at least 17 years before the bad guys coincidentally were watching local news nearly two decades later and happened to see Michael Gross on TV? That’s insane. This movie is making logic leaps across the Grand Canyon to connect plot points.

The next morning, Kathy faces Ice and gives him the cold shoulder in Lifetime Movie-quality dramatics. They have an obtuse conversation with each other but since it’s impossible to care about these characters the white picket fence in the background is upstaging the human beings on the screen.

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After literally a 3-minute scene of some terrible hip-hop song playing as Vanilla Ice aimlessly rides his bike in the desert–like, this is all that happens for 3 wordless minutes–ending with Ice moping around on a couch that’s outside for some reason. Kathy’s little brother shows up with Vanilla’s hair style and a motorcycle helmet looking for a ride on the bike of our “protagonist.” So guess what? Another montage! This movie is like 40% commercial-grade montage. This one intersperses “comedic” business involving the wacky old people they’re crashing with and Ice giving the kid a ride, who flips off Jerkface Smugman as they pass him at an intersection. This movie’s only using 3% of its overall power to try and cross the finish line.

Much like Vanilla Ice’s motorcycle, with the plot running on fumes at this point. Ice breaks into Kathy’s house and throws the ring she gave him into her fishbowl. Also, there are way too many fish in this small bowl–that’s just not good for the fish. The little brother is playing an NES football game, of which glimpsing a few seconds of it is a highlight of the film so far, when the bad guys show up and kidnap the kid. Because the third act had to kick in at some point. Meanwhile, Kathy and Ice separately mope in (gasp) yet another montage!

Ice shows up at Michael Gross’s door and espies an envelope on the porch, which he scoops up because he has boundary issues. He does his one-knock pound on the door and Ice acts like a total dick to both her father and Kathy because why not? Then he hands over the ransom envelope without explaining that he just found it on their porch, thus incriminating himself further. Was the screenwriter eating lead paint chips while writing this?

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They listen to the ransom tape, Michael Gross of course suspects Ice of being the deliveryman for the ransom tape, and–in a rare moment of insight–decides he’s going to call the police. But Jerkface Smugman shows up with a bandaged nose to make everything worse by mentioning that he just saw the kid and Ice on his motorcycle. This movie is sub-Lifetime Movie quality. Well there’s only 15 minutes left so fortunately it will all be over soon.

Back at Wacky House, USA, Ice and his gang are just listening to terrible hip-hop and nodding their heads to the TS-808 beat when Kathy shows up. Ice is a complete jerk to her but she has the ransom tape with her and they listen to the tape. Now we’re getting a little more of his posse involved, who have barely figured into the plot or have spoken much in the film, possibly because they don’t have to pay them as much if they don’t speak a certain amount on camera. Ice plays Clouseau and hears something in the background of the tape, identifying some sound that apparently is the construction site they had their date/jeans commercial.

Ice & Co., along with Kathy, show up at the site and the bad guys spot them. Kathy is eager to give up immediately while the bad guys taunt the kid, who is tied up and this is unpleasant to watch in general.

Then Ice and his fellow Icemen bust into their hideout and fisticuffs ensue while Kathy saves her little brother. After an extremely short fight scene where the bad guys are defeated almost immediately, it’s time for the denouement. Ice and everyone show up with the tied-up bad guys mounted to the front of their car while the little boy is reunited with his parents. Terrific. Michael Gross is a bit of a creep but also says Ice, I had you all wrong old sport. Then Kathy’s mom and dad are like, you know that after this traumatic evening we’re just going to let our daughter disappear into the night with this still-complete stranger. So they do.

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Jerkface Smugman shows up to throw some final shade at Kathy before Ice drives off with Kathy on the back of his bike. But just for good measure, he drives his bike over Jerkface’s convertible, endangering Kathy’s life in the process, but sick burn on the guy you already defeated, Ice!

AND THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE WHOLE STUPID MOVIE! Well except for a final performance from Vanilla Ice (but you don’t have to watch that).

“Imagine that.”  

As terrible as this movie is–and boy, it really is garbage–it’s also quite a bit of fun. For fans of the “So Bad, It’s Good” genre, Cool as Ice is a delightful time capsule of a very brief moment in time in the early 90’s when this was considered….well, not cool, but “cool” with extreme parentheses.

As stated in the intro, this style of bland hip-hop, outrageous sartorial choices, synchronized choreography, and poorly produced cash-in music acts were something that existed for a brief shining moment before disappearing completely…for a while. After all, boy bands had a resurgence in the late 90’s but the weird dancing white guy hip-hop fad began and ended with Vanilla Ice. And Cool as Ice is the awkward transition between the overblown 80’s and too-cool 90’s. Vanilla Ice had a brief career that made him a walking punchline for the rest of the decade before he was found flipping houses in Florida to make a living–which is a respectable career. And then he tried his hand at music again, pumping out an album with an ill-fated rap/rock outfit, before returning to flipping houses.

For cinephiles, Cool as Ice is a very poorly made film that has the feel of a long commercial or shoddy made-for-TV movie. But this is also part of its appeal: it’s like if Saved by the Bell actually took itself seriously and then expected its audience to, as well. It’s mindless, but it’s the right kind of mindless: an idiot plot dominates the film where one line of dialogue would clear up the misunderstandings that drove much of the “drama,” while Vanilla Ice is a completely unlikable protagonist that acts like a jerk to everybody even though he’s supposed to be taken as the “right” kind of jerk.

In short, it’s the right movie to watch when you’re in the mood for something terrible and easy to watch so you can poke fun at it with your friends and family. It’s surprisingly squeaky-clean despite the more salacious direction it could have gone and an artifact of a very different time and place in America that only really existed for a nanosecond before being crushed by better forces. Colorful, stupid, poorly made, and wrong-headed at every turn, Cool as Ice is some funky fresh awesome garbage. Word to your mother.

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Categories: film, humor, recap

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