Review: Cool as Ice

The theatrical poster for Vanilla Ice’s 1991 promotional vehicle Cool as Ice has one life lesson to impart: ‘When a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only one way to melt it. Just add ice!’ It’s the sort of dumb tagline that stands without further thought, the fact that temperatures potentially exceeding 1000 °C are required to melt stone, and that—by nature—ice’s temperature ranges at least 1000 degrees south of that figure, easily glazed over; lost in dumb spectacle. Oddly enough, it’s perfectly representative of the film as a whole.

As long as you don’t think too hard about it, Cool As Ice is easy to discount as just another product of the early nineties; a vomit-coloured, shell-toed icon of the collective generational  teething of America’s post-Hall and Oates, pre-Nirvana days. ‘So bad its good’ is a phrase often wheeled out for films like this, the kind of umbrella term that confers ironic distance and comedy status to even the most sincere of productions, and one that should be familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, or Tommy Wiseau’s unintelligible The Room.

‘People enjoyed this!’ Cool as Ice’s viewer might scoff, pointing a relatively space-aged finger at their screen: at Robert Van Winkle, the self-serious ‘bad boy Vanilla Ice’, who is, as the blurb puts it, the famed ‘leader of a tough motorcycle gang’. With a bright yellow toy-bike and the pattern of a brick wall shaved into the side of his head, Van Winkle struts across the screen like a neon dove, blissfully unaware of the millennial viewer’s ironic appreciation of his film, if not his entire life’s work.

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Distinct from the emotional outpourings of other pop-tinged dramas like Prince’s Purple Rain, Vanilla Ice’s film wastes no time when it comes to massaging its star’s ego. There are no stories of abuse or neglect here, no rags-to-riches biopic elements, only an already-famous Vanilla Ice living the good life. This is a ninety minute long piece of brand awareness no different to a branded toothbrush or lunchbox, an object that was intended to be consumed, and yet never appreciated.

From minute one, when Vanilla’s Skittle-coloured posse woos the film’s love interest by knocking her off a horse (?), it’s clear that there will be no character development taking place. Ice is the textbook Mary Sue, proficient at dancing, rapping, beating up dudes in gas stations (??), and solving crimes (???). He rides into a small town, blows the minds of the Footloose-esque old guard, then rides away again, though not before a final close-up and dance number. Viewed in earnest, he’s an infuriatingly egotistical creation, even by the standards of vanity films.

Yet in spite of this, Cool as Ice is hugely entertaining, thanks to the foundation of 90’s ephemera on which Ice’s ego was built. Through a mixture of ironic distance and schadenfreude, the film’s annoyances have now become its biggest draw. It’s a masterpiece of self-parody, providing a hilarious view of early 90’s brand marketing and advertising from within the belly of the beast, perfectly pitched to the typically sarcastic millennial viewer.

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It’s also surprisingly functional as a film. I think it’s worth mentioning that, before shooting Cool as Ice, director David Kellogg had worked regularly for Playboy, helming the annual Playboy Video Playmate Calendar for four years running. Aptly, there is something mildly pornographic about Cool as Ice: it revels in long, lingering close-ups, albeit with a staccato approach to non-action scenes, weaving between MTV style quick-cuts and long, bare-all shots of dance routines and bike rides. Kellogg’s background in softcore calendar shoots leaves the film feeling airy and surreal, as if ready to break into a commercial announcement at any second.

There’s little filmic about it, and as a result, it possesses an arresting visual style, boasting the instant gratification aesthetic of a music video, albeit at a feature length. It’s a novel backdrop to a film that should, ostensibly, look a lot worse, and one that works to distinguish Cool as Ice from most other ‘good-bad’ films.

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After all, as easy as it may be to laugh at Ice when he informs us that he’s going to go across the road and ‘schling a schlong’ (I don’t know, either), Cool as Ice has slightly more working in its favour. The main appeal of films like these usually rests in the viewer’s longing to believe that they represent a genuine place in time: more often than not an embarrassing footnote in our cultural development, akin to leafing through family photos and discovering a snap of your po-faced uncle wearing flares and platform shoes. When it comes to ‘so bad its good’ films, the veil of sincerity is everything; the belief that people took them seriously is core to their awful appeal.

This, however, seems to be the exception to the rule. Consider that Cool as Ice sprung a leak at the box office, losing in excess of five million dollars, and it soon becomes apparent that nobody even wanted it at the time. Cool as Ice is an interesting exercise in cultural nostalgia, providing a summary of an era easily traceable by its design, and yet one which even the era itself refused to accept.

This is a great film, not because it reinforces our conceptions of an era, but because it tears them down. Through its many hilarious failures, it gives us a small glimpse into the workings of the American hype machine: every 90’s stereotype, every stilted line, and every tired dance break a reminder that our shared idea of ‘the 90’s’ is no more genuine than Ice’s acting.

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As much as I didn’t expect to find myself typing this: Vanilla Ice’s Cool as Ice succeeds on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s the willing self-assassination of both an era and its people: an artefact of its time that’s easy to approach with ironic distance and laugh at. Yet it’s also a perfect chance to laugh along with the people of the 90’s, at the Rich White Man: not just Van Winkle, but the people responsible for both his brief success, and the film itself. Someone, somewhere, financed this film. Someone, driven by cold hard statistics, saw fit to allow Robert Van Winkle to paste the words ‘SEX ME UP’ onto his jacket, and they probably regret it to this day.

If our enjoyment of most ‘bad-good’ films usually rests on a mean-spirited admonishment of budding young actors, other cultures, or the sincere artistic outpourings of unknown directors, then this instead allows us to laugh at more deserving targets: the grossly successful, and the crassly commercial. There’s no grand artistic vision to joke about here—à la the so-bad-it’s-good classic Showgirls—just a group of Rich White Men looking to turn a profit and failing spectacularly. In the end, I think that’s the funniest joke of all.