White and whiter

Nov 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

One of the wittier moments in the new film 8 Mile occurs when Caucasian rapper Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith (Eminem) is referred to disparagingly as "Vanilla Ice" for his intrusion on a predominantly black artistic milieu. But behind the joke lies a valid question: How does the film compare to Cool As Ice, the 1991 Vanilla vehicle that was until now the de facto standard-bearer of white hip-hop cinema?

Da basic facts: 8 Mile is a character study of a conflicted Detroit rapper whose struggle to overcome a severe case of mic fright is the symbolic center of his youthful identity crisis. Newly ensconced in a trailer court with his slutty mama (Kim Basinger) and beloved little sister, Eminem's Rabbit has to choose between the careerist urgings of pals who want him to hone his skillz and the economic necessity of logging more hours at the stamping plant where he works. The story is said to be "loosely based" on Eminem's life, which is Hollywood's way of saying that it's 100 percent lies. But the lies go down easy. The movie's structural similarity to Purple Rain is tempered by a more mature view of post-adolescent ennui that owes more to Saturday Night Fever.

Cool As Ice, meanwhile, is total fantasy, an MTV-idiotic hybrid of The Wild Bunch, Rebel Without a Cause and one of the lesser Elvis movies. Ice plays either a professional rapper who spends lots of time astride a motorcycle or a biker who likes to drop fly rhymes in his spare time. (The distinction is never adequately drawn.) Tooling into suburbia with three of his homies, our hero catches the eye of a college-bound honor student, helping her to unlock her inner biker babe. He also draws the instant enmity of her loser boyfriend and her straight-laced parents — the latter of whom who just happen to be living under the Witness Protection Program and pursued by a pair of mock-threatening goombas. In terms of real-world gravitas, the movie makes Spice World look like Schindler's List.

Vibe: 8 Mile dwells without flinching on the dilapidation of ghetto infrastructure and fashion. The visual "style" of Cool As Ice — defined by the queasy juxtaposition of Ice's orange wardrobe and canary-yellow chopper — extends to ice-creamy neighborhoods that suggest Pee-Wee's Big Adventure reshot on a shoestring budget.

The name game: Ice's break-dancing biker is known only as "Johnny." Eminem's character is not only "Jimmy" but "Jimmy Smith." Let's call this one a draw.

Leading ladies: In 8 Mile, Rabbit's rapping talent attracts the attention of around-the-way girl Alex (Brittany Murphy), who invites him on a first "date" that entails fornicating inside the stamping plant. She is later revealed to be a straight-up skeezer, a development that surprises only him. In Cool As Ice, Johnny meets his true love, Cathy (Kristin Minter), by busting a move on his bike that causes her to fall off her horse. Their courtship involves frolicking on a construction site and playing with a garden hose. Guess these rap types aren't big on dinner and a movie. A more pressing question: If Cathy scored 800s on her SAT, why can't she see that her Mr. Right is just a few years away from having to play the Fairbanks Inn?

The actor's studio: The unexpectedly capable Eminem isn't merely one of the few pop stars who can indeed play themselves. His performance includes dollops of wide-eyed fear and big-brotherly warmth that may keep him in demand as a supporting player in future, non-vanity projects. Ice's movie requires him merely to act smug for 92 minutes, and he barely pulls that off.

Call for backup: 8 Mile was directed by Curtis Hanson of L.A. Confidential, which is good. It was written by Scott Silver of The Mod Squad, which sounds bad but isn't, terribly. Cool As Ice marked the directorial debut of David Kellogg, who went on to helm Inspector Gadget. Writer David Stenn got his start in TV and went right back there after Ice's movie dropped.

Rap cred: 8 Mile's dramatic centerpiece is a freestyle battle so thrilling that you don't mind that it's been set up by an entire film's worth of frankly mediocre wordplay. As for Cool As Ice — well, it's Vanilla Ice. How slick do you think the rhymes are?

Racial profiling: If 8 Mile doesn't fully explore the implications of Rabbit's station as the perennial whitest man in the room, it's at least a semi-major plot point. The insulting Cool As Ice submits its star as the leader of an otherwise black posse, in a failed bid to make us forget that his real name is Robby Van Winkle.

Oscar moms: A surprising win for the Iceman. Candy Clark, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for 1973's American Graffiti, plays Cathy's mother in Cool As Ice, doing a respectable job of both impersonating domesticity and hiding the shame that her career has sunk to this. The low point of 8 Mile is the preposterous performance of 1997 Best Actress Basinger, whose chewing of the double-wide scenery includes a squawking, utterly unlistenable stab at a white-trash accent. Suddenly, none of Eminem's infamous matricidal ranting seems unjustified.

Ease of use: Not even a contest. 8 Mile is playing on screens across the country, but to rent Cool As Ice, I had to perform an extensive search of www.blockbuster.com before locating an area store that still had copies in stock. The clerk on duty did mention, however, that my interest had forestalled the tape's retirement: Previous rentals had been about as frequent as sightings of Halley's Comet. That sucker Ice had better give me mad props the next time I see him at the Fairbanks Inn.

Steve Schneider writes for the Orlando Weekly, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]