Before Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, and Ryan Reynolds, there was Ryan O’Neal. Like the first four actors mentioned in the previous sentence, O’Neal was aided in his early ascent to fame by dashing good looks and what one writer dubbed a “toothpaste smile” — and also like those other guys, he struggled to find his footing after enjoying his first flush of success. But where Pitt, DiCaprio, McConaughey, and Reynolds were all able to navigate their way toward respected and/or bankable leading man status over the long term, O’Neal ended up becoming part of a particularly sad cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame: A decade after earning an Academy Award nomination for his breakthrough film Brian’s Song, he was already flailing about in search of the picture that would help him mount a comeback. His life would continue taking darker turns in the years to come, but for our purposes here, it’s (fortunately) okay to focus on O’Neal’s early ’80s career crossroads, specifically the spot marked Green Ice.
There’s a particular type of adventure movie from this era that seemingly starts from the proposition that if you just take Americans and plop them down in exotic locales, you’ve you’ve got yourself enough excitement for a movie. Green Ice eagerly embraces this idea from its opening sequence, which depicts a group of gringos sneaking through a patch of jungle before they’re caught by military personnel who discover that they’re smuggling emeralds in a canteen. One soldier grabs the pretty blonde woman in the group and shoves her into a nearby train car while the others are strip-searched and shot; after the rest of the smugglers are killed, the commanding officer pulls the soldier away from the blonde and shoots her himself.
What’s this all about? We’ll find out…eventually. But first, here’s Joe Wiley (O’Neal), who we first meet renting a car in Mexico at a ramshackle spot marked “Rent-A-Rodriguez.” When Joe tests the windshield wipers, they fall off, at which point the proprietor shrugs and promises that it never rains in Mexico. Green Ice‘s blithely offensive view of Mexicans is further demonstrated a few moments later, when Wiley pulls over at a roadside stand where we see three people: a blond guy (looking for all the world like an uncredited Ed Begley Jr.) working on a small plane; an attractive woman (Anne Archer) who pops out and asks for a ride to a nearby resort; and a local guy sleeping in a hammock in the background.
Wiley, naturally, obliges this comely stranger’s request for a lift, thus setting our story speedily (albeit senselessly) in motion. On the drive, he introduces himself as an electronics engineer and an “ideas man” who’s always looking for his next moneymaking scheme; after missing his plane to Hawaii, he ended up in Mexico because it seemed affordable. She’s Lillian Holbrook, an American expatriate who owns the plane and is on her way to a “quiet weekend.” (The way this is all set up is pretty confusing — initially, it seems like she might be the owner of the roadside stand, which is clearly quiet enough for one of its employees to openly nap away an afternoon.) Sensing that Wiley’s the type of guy who’s always looking for an easy mark, she lets him know that the resort where they’re headed is full of rich women looking for kept men, although she warns him that older guys have fewer takers.
(O’Neal turned 41 the year Green Ice was released. Ouch!)
Anyway, Wiley follows Holbrook to the resort, where she casually instructs one of the employees to “do the impossible” and find him a spot to sleep. Just like that, our man’s gone from tooling around in a car with no windshield wipers to being put up in a posh $284-a-night room, just because he happened to pull over and ask Maybe Ed Begley Jr. why he was working on an airplane by the side of the road. This is a plot that loves a good coincidence, in other words — oh, and speaking of coincidences, the room Wiley’s given just happens to have been double-booked to a guy named Prentis (Delroy White), who just happens to be in town to purchase some emeralds on the black market. And Wiley just happens to be in the room when the phone rings with a call from the seller, who helpfully lets him know there are some samples in his nightstand and directs him to the place where the sale will go down.
This is a movie that really wants to bust out of the gate with the soul of a caper, but it lays the groundwork for its story with the meandering “and then there was an” energy of a four-year-old making it up as they go along, and for at least 40 minutes, it’s difficult to understand what the hell is happening or why you’re supposed to care. Wiley, sensing an opportunity to make some money, sets up the sale — but first, we meet the glowering Meno Sebastiano Argenti, played by Omar Sharif with all the rakish energy of an actor who allegedly admitted he enjoyed joining the project because it gave him “plenty of time off.”
Before you’re really given a chance to figure out what the fuck this guy is doing here, Wiley attempts to screw Prentis out of his emeralds, only for Prentis to show up, pistol in hand, and shout “drive him into the ocean!” while firing shots in Wiley’s direction. Wiley is shot in the ass while fleeing into the sea, but after swimming for what seems like maybe ten seconds, he’s saved by a mysterious stranger in a speedboat who tosses him a rope and then drags him face-first through a mile of ocean before letting him climb on board. (It looks comical, but O’Neal apparently almost drowned filming the stunt.)
Surprise! Wiley’s benefactor is none other than Holbrook, who gets him back on dry land and blithely dresses his wound in a goddamn parking lot.
For reasons that are still unclear to the audience, Holbrook then whisks Wiley away to her palatial estate during a long drive that gives these two deeply incompatible actors an opportunity to test their complete lack of chemistry with what’s supposed to be flirty repartee. Personally, I was a lot more interested in the chintzy green screen effects, which had me hoping I was in for some wild low-budget fun with this movie. Just look at this shot. Don’t you miss car ride scenes that look like this?
Okay, maybe not. Either way, after we arrive at Holbrook’s place, the rest of the bizarrely convoluted plot starts clicking into place. We learn that the blonde woman who was groped and shot in the movie’s opening moments is Holbrook’s sister Kerry, who was working with a band of revolutionaries in the jungles of Colombia. We also learn that the Holbrooks are a very wealthy family, and that her father works in the diamond business. Then Argenti shows up, introducing himself as her fiancé and being a dick to Wiley. He’s also “an important man in Bogotá,” where Holbrook is headed with Wiley in tow on a fact-finding mission to discover that yes, her sister is dead — information she’s given by a priest with hilarious DGAF energy.
Argenti, meanwhile, makes a point of giving Joe a tour of his company, which sells millions and millions of dollars worth of (gasp!) emeralds that are mined in Colombia through unscrupulous means. In an impressive display of frenzied dick-swinging, he shows Joe his fancy vault, which is dozens of stories up in his high-tech skyscraper and can only be accessed by voice command. It’s here that we learn that Argenti really enjoys saying his full name. It happens a lot in this film.
Spurred by a need to honor her sister’s legacy, Holbrook takes Wiley into the Colombian jungle, where they meet up with the revolutionaries who secretly mine emeralds from the land of a coffee grower who gives them away in exchange for free labor. It’s here that Green Ice suddenly starts injecting a lot of socialist politics into the mix, chiefly via lead revolutionary Miguel (Domingo Ambriz), who grew up the son of an undocumented resident in the U.S. and fled to South America after destroying a draft recruitment center during the Vietnam War.
There’s supposed to be a certain tension between those ideals — ideals that are very quickly adopted by Holbrook — and Wiley’s anything-for-a-buck ethos, but his character is never defined well enough to make it work, and O’Neal doesn’t give his performance the Han Solo mercenary edge that the movie is looking for. Instead, he cheerfully assists the group in getting together its latest emerald haul and ferries them down the mountain. They’re stopped by soldiers in Argenti’s pocket, but Holbrook straight up fucking shoots the commanding officer in the chest, starting a brief gunfight that ends with all the soldiers dead. Shortly after that, Holbrook and Wiley are arrested and taken to a prison where he spends the night watching another prisoner eaten by pigs and she’s sexually assaulted offscreen. They argue politics after being let out the next morning, which leads to the bizarre admission that you knew was coming but still made me laugh out loud:
Okay! So, to recap: At this point, we’ve got Holbrook, who desperately wants to avenge the death of her sister, which her kinda-sorta fiancé is responsible for; we’ve got Wiley, who’s accidentally involved in all of this and seems to serve no genuine purpose; and we’ve got Argenti, who wants to marry Holbrook despite the fact that their characters act like grandfather and granddaughter. (Seriously, the only thing that passes for sexual tension in this movie exists between Sharif and O’Neal.) We also have a band of revolutionaries in the jungle who are trying to feed the Colombian people left starving through the widespread theft of their natural resources.
That’s a lot of plot! But the story still isn’t done.
It’s around this time that we learn Argenti was previously a diamond magnate who ran afoul of his fellow partners in “the diamond concession” and was forced to leave Italy, never to return. Even with all of his ill-gotten emeralds and his fancy sky vault, he desperately yearns to end his exile, which is why he’s planning to marry Holbrook — whose father, you may recall, is in the diamond business and also just happens to be a member of the concession. In a hurry to cement the deal, Argenti —
Sorry, Meno Sebastiano Argenti plots to have Wiley thrown out of the country. In response, Wiley (who, as people keep telling us throughout the movie, is an electronics engineer) retorts that Argenti’s vault isn’t as secure as he thinks; in fact, he boasts that he could break in blindfolded. Argenti, blinded by ego (I guess?), gives him 24 hours to provide proof of the supposed flaws in the system.
And now, finally, with like half an hour left in the movie, we’ve finally gotten to the heart of the fucking story. Wiley, who’s suddenly a genius, springs into action, hatching a heist with the help of Miguel as well as his old pal named Claude, who’s played with delightfully hammy zest by John Larroquette in full “the director told me to pretend I was Larry Hagman on Dallas” mode. Part of Argenti’s deal with the sky vault is that fancy sensors on the roof can detect an airplane from a mile away, so to get around that, Wiley has Claude hook them up with some hot air balloons.
Despite the beautiful chintz of the green screen driving scene I mentioned before, Green Ice actually wasn’t a low-budget movie — I don’t know what was spent on this thing, but there are expensive sets, sweeping aerial shots, and some stunt work that clearly took a fair amount of planning. The movie also boasts a soundtrack scored by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, which comes delightfully into play during the balloon flight sequence, scored to the strains of “Floating (Cloudhopper Theme),” sung by folk legend Maria Muldaur. Like a lot of soundtrack flexes from the era, it’s jarring as hell:
After they reach the roof and Larroquette flies off to better projects, Wiley and Miguel set about breaking into the building in a sequence that has all the tension of a dryer repair video. These guys have cool tools (those suction cups that remove windows!), they’re on a high-stakes mission, everything is super high-tech in that marvelous ’80s way — this should have been a slam dunk for the director, even if he was replaced partway through the project. Instead, it unspools like a half-speed rehearsal, including what could have been a nifty Mission: Impossible-style moment when Wiley reveals that he’s constructed a gadget that will make it look and sound as if Meno —
Sorry, Meno Sebastiano Argenti is actually standing in the room, commanding the vault doors to open. It works, Miguel and Wiley grab the jewels, and they head to the roof, where they install a pulley system that’s supposed to get them safely down to the street, where a crew of Miguel’s fellow revolutionaries are waiting with a truck to get them to safety. Unfortunately, after Wiley makes it down, the pulley gets stuck, leaving Miguel dangling halfway down the building like a putz. He’s still there when Argenti and his crew return to work in the morning, which gives him the opportunity to scream that they won’t get back what they stole from the earth before he unhooks himself from the line, hurtling to his death. (He lands on a truck full of water bottles which go gushing into the street as the camera zooms in on the cross hanging from the rearview mirror. Subtlety, thy name is not Green Ice.)
It’s here that the movie finally establishes once and for all that it isn’t about to give its hero a true Some Guy Cinema arc. If Miguel had gotten away, leaving Wiley to face Argenti and his men, it would have made for a much more interesting final act. Our protagonist sacrificing himself for the greater good? Hopefully doling out some cool quips while taking a beating from the bad guy’s henchmen, then escaping using little more than his wits? That’s what we’re here for. But no, instead we get Wiley and Holbrook taking off with $80 million in emeralds hidden in the bait well of a stolen boat, only to be boarded by soldiers who unwittingly dump the jewels into the ocean.
I keep meaning to turn the conversation here to something besides synopsis, but there’s no character development of any kind in this movie, and none of the performances are layered enough to convey any sort of inner life. There’s just a bunch of things happening onscreen, which fulfills the “some guys doing some stuff” portion of our program in the most literal and least interesting way. It’s a pity, because O’Neal was in a pretty decent spot for a Some Guy role at this point in his career — he’d aged out of his pretty boy looks to a certain extent, and his best work, like 1973’s Paper Moon, proves he was more than capable of playing the sort of charming, quasi-despicable, yet vulnerable character that could have made Green Ice a lot more interesting.
That never happens here. Instead, we get one last spurt of incident after Holbrook leads Wiley to her family’s beach house, where they finally fall into bed with each other. The next morning, they’re attacked by Argenti’s men and they end up in separate gunfights on the beach — Holbrook stops Wiley mid-flee to tell him he’s a fantastic lover, natch — after which Argenti arrives to finish them off, only to be shot dead himself by Jaap, his trusted jeweler who was also apparently a secret member of the diamond concession. Jaap, evidently unbothered by the loss of $80 million in jewels, walks away, leaving our lovers to return to New York, where Wiley begins a new career importing coffee from the farmer we met halfway through the movie.
Well, coffee and a little something extra.
Green Ice is a movie that is nothing if not overstuffed. The screenplay was adapted from a novel that apparently tells a much larger story, but it would have benefited a great deal from being cut down even further — it’s extremely telling that even at nearly two hours, it resorts to voiceover in order to dump exposition and plot on more than one occasion. With different people involved, it might have been a sort of Romancing the Stone with a socially conscious twist. Instead, it’s a different type of ’80s artifact — one of those sodden would-be adventures led by a disinterested-seeming star and sold with a poster that lies in order to make the movie seem more interesting than it is. It isn’t the worst film of its type, however; in fact, it might even be worth watching once out of the corner of your eye on a Saturday afternoon, if only to see Sharif and Larroquette having fun cashing their checks. In the name of justice for Miguel, I’m giving it two Scheiders.