There is, I think, an excellent possibility that there is not a worse film with better cinematography than Cool as Ice, the 1991 film where Janusz Kamiński was given more or less an entirely free hand to do literally whatever he wanted. And oh my word, did he ever run with that. View it as a movie where the lighting, camera movement, and lens choices are focused on teasing out the story beats, the characters' psychology, or the emotions the viewer is supposed to feel, and Cool as Ice will seem entirely incoherent (this is by no means the only way in which it seems entirely incoherent). View it as a feature-length portfolio, showcasing every kind of challenge that Kamiński could set for himself to prove that he could come up with beautiful solutions to any problem that might plausibly crop up in a mainstream film - shooting at night! shooting under trees! using natural light indoors! through a fish tank! in a desert! on a suburban street at midday! just lighting for exposure! jagged expressionist shadows! atmospheric shafts of dusty light! Vertigo shots! - and it's a world-class tour de force by a talent to be reckoned with. If the world were just, this would be the film that brought Kamiński to the attention of Steven Spielberg, the director with whom he has forged one of modern cinema's most reliable collaborations. Unfortunately, Spielberg is on record saying that it was another 1991 Kamiński project, the telefilm Wildflower, that served that purpose. But I can choose to believe he's lying if I want to.

Now, as much fun as it is to refer to Cool as Ice as "a Janusz Kamiński movie", but to my deep regret, this is not what it really is, actually. No, this film's main identity, for better or for worse, is the first starring role for Robert "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle, a performer who'd made his first big-screen appearance earlier in 1991 in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. He was even better known for being a rapper, something he was specifically and visibly not very good at. Indeed, for a little window of time in late 1990 and early 1991, Mr. Ice was almost certainly the most famous and financially successful rapper in the world, which is really just very fucking unfortunate.

This means, of course, that Cool as Ice exists not because a muse whispered in the ear of screenwriter David Stenn, or director David Kellogg, or producers Carolyn Pfeiffer and Lionel Wigram, urging them towards some unknowable artistic itch that this film must be put out int the world. It exists because there was an insanely profitable fad to be milked for every available penny before audiences lost interest. As they indeed began to lost interest, by the end of summer, 1991. Sadly for all involved, Cool as Ice came out in the autumn.

The film is pretty much exactly what you would expect of a quickly-made cash-in starring a first-time non-actor for which the overall level of investment was such that the cinematographer was basically allowed to run around unattended. We learn quite early just how damned wrong-headed this is going to be; in fact, we learn before the movie even exists, when we come across its poster. For on that poster is emblazoned the following legend: "When a girl has a heart of stone, there's only one way to melt it. Just add Ice." Which sort of sounds mildly cool, I guess. "Melt a heart of stone" is a Biblical reference, even though one uses ice to solidify things, not to melt them, so B- for effort. Anyway, we pass by the poster to arrive at the theater, where the movie itself begins with a sequence that strongly suggests that Kellogg and editor Debra Goldfield had seen Do the Right Thing and its its legendary opening credits, only instead of Rosie Perez furiously throwing her body around to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", it's Ice breakdancing, intercut with him and Naomi Campbell reciting the title song - I would feel like I was misleading you if I said they were "rapping" the title song - and I will in his defense that Ice is, in fact, a very energetic and fearless dancer, insofar as you can tell from the little fragments of movement that the editing leaves intact. While this happens, the credits very fancily pluck out different letters by making them different colors. Sometimes this is just for the pleasure of graphic design, as when the j and two i's of "janusz kaminski" are in yellow, while the rest of the letters are teal. Sometimes it spells out a word, as when cast members AllIson Dean, Kevin HiCks, and DEezer D. have their names lined up so that those letters I bolded read "ice" from top to bottom. Or when the director credit is rendered as directed by david kellogg, so as to spell out... "ice egg".

The movie itself is a simple little The Wild One riff: a certain Johnny Van Owen (Ice) and his crew drift from city to city like rapping ronin, riding their garish, neon-colored bikes while wearing garish, neon-colored clothing; Johnny himself is particularly fond of leather jackets with random words and short phrases appliqued on. In this particular town, Johnny spots a young woman riding a horse, in slow-motion; he gets so excited that he jumps his bike over the fence to her paddock, in slow-motion; she freaks out and falls off the horse, in slow-motion. Back in normal speed, she punches him in the gut, the most reasonable thing she will ever do in the movie. This is Miss Kathy Winslow (Kristin Minter), a daughter of some privilege who will spend the movie falling in love with this mysterious neon stranger with shapes shaved into his sideburns and an otherworldly inability to be aggressively inappropriate in a way that would get you or I thrown in prison, if we weren't the lead character in a vanity project for a slurring, low-charisma music star. Sometimes, it's just normal creeper shit: when Kathy is having a tetchy almost-fight with her asshole WASP boyfriend Nick (John Haymes Newton), Johnny just randomly shows up to shove himself into their conversation. Wearing a jacket and no shirt, I might add. This is scene where he delivers the film's most beloved and iconic line of dialogue, in which he invites Kathy to cease spending time with the man who is of zero value, and instead change the object of her affection to a man of more hero-like mien - the line being built around the fact that "zero" and "hero" rhyme. Ice, being a professional rapper, is good at spotting opportunities for wordplay like this.

Other times, he goes considerably beyond mere creeping. At one point - they have at this point danced and flirtatiously bantered - he sneaks into her bedroom to wake her up by poppin.g an ice cube into her mouth and then while her eyes pop open in a close up, he huskily whispers off-camera, "Shh, we don't wanna wake up Mom and Dad". This is the way you stage a scene that smash-cuts to her parents walking in to find her skinned corpse, not the way you stage the start of a scene where the two kids romp around her room playfully teasing each other

Earlier in the film, Kathy appears on television for some mindless local news puff piece about local horse-riding teenagers, and Johnny watches her: he's in a close-up where his eyes disappear into the jet-black pools of shadow formed by his eye sockets. So Kamiński knows what's what, at least.

This puff piece triggers the film's secondary plot: Kathy's dad (Michael Gross) appears in the puff piece, and is recognised by a pair of shady-looking ne'er-do-wells (Jack McGee, S.A. Griffin) as the man they've been hunting since he went underground 20 years ago. The sort of man you'd blithely expect to show up in front of a TV camera so he could talk about his daughter's like, GPA, or whatever. This leads to one of the most amazing scenes in the film: the ne'er-do-wells call him and then hang up, all threatening-like, and he immediately realises that something is wrong; he then takes another call and feigns that everything is alright, though the low angle and prowling camera suggest otherwise, as does the cutaway to his wife's (Candy Clark) nervous look. Kathy notices nothing, but is obviously lost in thought about the handsome rogue Johnny. And what dominates the soundtrack during this scene of contemplation and nervous chatter? Why, the sounds of Kathy's brother Tommy (Victor DiMattia) playing Super Mario Bros. 3 - Level 1-1, I think, based on the music and the fact that he is able to get up enough speed to make the flight meter whistle. That I had the inclination to think about this is a sign, perhaps, of how astonishingly stupid the mixing is here. That I had the time to work through this all is a sign, definitely, that this scene, and the video game sound effects, get far too much screentime. Like, literally, three minutes. Enough at any rate, for my notes to include both "Oh my God, the SMB3 ISN'T FUCKING STOPPING" as well as "IT'S STILL NOT STOPPING".

Let me not dwell on every equally-horrible choice that goes into Cool as Ice, though, or this review will drift into the tens of thousands of words before I ever slow down. It's just one bad idea after another, from the house where Sydney Lassick and Dody Goodman play a married pair of zany motorcycle mechanics, a nightmare of primary colors and incoherent spaces (cued by this kind of "bwap-de-bwap" cue in Stanley Clarke's score); to all of the moments that have the piecemeal editing and gaudy wide-angle lenses and fast movement of a music video, whether that makes any sort of narrative sense (one of these, for example, is when Kathy returns to her house after horseback riding); and on the moment when Johnny and Kathy are suddenly in the middle of the heretofore unseen desert, and he's also not wearing his shirt anymore.

But for all that Kellogg overdirects the thing into oblivion, and the "teen love story plus gangsters chasing her dad" script is inane at best and grueling at worst, there is no question as to what black hole around which this collapsing system orbits: Ice's performance. He is freakishly bad: unsure of what to do with his body, prone to pulling faces, and addicted to over-stressed, under-enunciated line deliveries. The latter of these get so bad that at one point, Minter actually makes fun of it right on camera, in a shot that makes it right into the final cut. I think they were trying to sell it as banter. Whatever the case, Ice is absolutely dreadful, smug and charmless and far too confident that the mirthless crudity he's up to are endlessly amusing and fun. It is, to be fair, exactly the right performance for Johnny as written; he is a hateful jackass with a grossly inflated ego, and if Cool as Ice were trying to diagnose swaggering, unpleasant male entitlement, it could hardly have done a better job. Since it is instead trying to be a light, sassy romantic dramedy for teens, well, fuck it right into the ground.