In a startling public relations gaffe, a Fox News spokesperson responded to LL Cool J’s unwillingness to have an interview from two years ago reappropriated for Sarah Palin’s new show with this snippy self-righteous rejoinder: “as it appears that Mr. Smith does not want to be associated with a program that could serve as an inspiration to others, we are cutting his interview from the special and wish him the best with his fledgling acting career.”
This would sting if it were remotely true. Fortunately for us, it’s not. Though LL Cool J (formerly James Todd Smith) is currently stuck on the CBS procedural “NCIS: Los Angeles” alongside far less compelling ’90s casualty Chris O’Donnell, at least the show pulls in 17.82 million viewers on average, which isn’t shabby at all. In any case, it’s not like LL got the film parts he deserved — but he is, as it happens, the single most successful male-rapper-turned-actor. (Queen Latifah, it seems, is the single most successful.) It’s kind of a tricky success — Tupac gave several highly-praised performances before his untimely death, so who knows? — but LL Cool J will not be getting any competition soon from Snoop Dogg (who mostly coasts on his persona, as in Huggy Bear in “Starsky and Hutch”) or the rock-bottom muttering of 50 Cent, and he’s genuinely fun and game.
I don’t know how much of LL Cool J’s chops have to be coached relentlessly: one Aaron Speiser, an LA acting teacher, apparently spends a lot of time helping him on the set (he’s credited as his coach on most of his credits from 1999 onwards), although that mostly suggests the man takes this acting stuff very seriously indeed.
There are three performances of his that stand out in my mind. Despite a supporting part in 1991’s “The Hard Way,” it’s in “Toys” that he really came into his own. It’s hard to maintain your dignity when you first appear as camouflaged sofa cushions, but he pulled it off. In a movie where Michael Gambon and Robin Williams seem to be having a competition to see who can mug harder — and where the spectacular production design is upstaging everyone — he walks away with the movie.
But his ultimate partnership came in two collaborations with Renny Harlin: 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea” and 2004’s “Mindhunters,” two spectacularly entertaining and knowing pieces of deliberate trash. Harlin’s an above-average craftsman when it comes to shot composition and edits, which makes him the perfect person to make stupid movies about genetically modified sharks and whatever “Mindhunters” was about besides Rube Goldberg machines that kill people. These are seriously entertaining movies, in both of which [SPOILER] Cool J survives the high body count. Harlin must really dig him.
“Deep Blue Sea” gets the edge though: arguably, the whole movie stages an argument about black self-identity between Cool J and Samuel L. Jackson that isn’t even all that subtle. Early on, Cool J chews out Jackson for doing dangerous stuff like mountain climbing when he should focus on being a black entrepreneur/role model. If you remember what happens to Jackson later on, you’ll see who wins that fight, though Cool J’s last line (“Take me back to the ghetto”) seals the deal: after you survive the sharks, the hood’s no big deal.
It seriously took a movie about genetically modified sharks to get Cool J to get all meta on his image as a successfully self-promoting/crossover approved black man always acutely aware of his race and status. Which is awesome.
[Photos: “NCIS: Los Angeles,” CBS, 2009-present; “Deep Blue Sea,” Warner Bros., 1999]