By the time he celebrated his 20th birthday, Ice Cube had already helped found — and had departed — one of the most influential rap groups of all time. But as we soon learned, his time with N.W.A. was only the beginning: Cube quickly went on to start an acclaimed solo career, and with 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the big screen. Since then, he’s amassed an eclectic filmography — one with room for action, dramas, comedies, and family-friendly fare, and plenty of critical highs and lows to match. With his latest release, Ride Along 2, appearing in theaters this weekend, we decided to take a look back at some definitive entries in Cube’s film oeuvre. It’s time for Total Recall!
He wrote the song from which the movie takes its name, so it’s only appropriate that Ice Cube’s film debut should come as part of John Singleton’s 1991 breakthrough, Boyz N the Hood. What no one could have guessed, though, was just how effective Cube would be as Darrin “Doughboy” Baker, the Crip-affiliated ex-con who chooses to remain in his violent lifestyle, no matter how profound the consequences might be. An auspicious debut for Singleton — who earned an Oscar nomination — Boyz promised great things for Cube’s acting career, and earned the respect of critics like Netflix’s James Rocchi, who called it “remarkable — a film full of political discussion and thought that also manages to involve us in the real, human lives of its characters.”
After the bloated misfire of 1990’s Another 48 Hrs., director Walter Hill needed a project that would get him back to basics, and he found it in Trespass, an urban update on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that pitted two firefighters (Bill Paxton and William Sadler) against a gangster (Ice-T) and his bloodthirsty lieutenant (Ice Cube). Unapologetically nihilistic and gleefully violent, Trespass presaged future Hill vehicles like Last Man Standing (right down to the Ry Cooder soundtrack), with the added advantage of a cast filled with comically gifted character actors. Calling it “Claustrophobic, taut and efficient,” Chris Hicks of the Deseret News wrote, “like a streamlined car designed to simply get you there, Trespass wastes no time in setting up its premise — and then just barrels along with an in-your-face attitude and plenty of tightly wound tension.”
As he had with Boyz N the Hood — and would go on to do with Higher Learning — Ice Cube helped tackle racially charged topics in The Glass Shield, a police drama from director Charles Burnett about a rookie cop (Michael Boatman) who becomes the first black cop at an all-white station just in time to become involved in the wrongful prosecution of a murder suspect (Cube). Grossing a little over $3 million during its limited release, Shield slid under the radar, despite a cast that also included Lori Petty — but for a number of critics, it represented another solid entry in Burnett’s filmography. As Marjori Baumgarten summed it up for the Austin Chronicle, “Though The Glass Shield gets bogged down in some of its narrative byways, the journey, nonetheless, is rich and rewarding.”
How many laughs can you get out of a premise that basically revolves around a pair of unemployed twentysomethings sitting on the front porch? Ask anyone who’s seen Friday. Co-written by Cube and DJ Pooh, this low-budget cult classic follows the adventures of Craig (Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker) as they spend a Friday scrambling to come up with $200 to pay off Big Worm, the local dealer/ice cream man. A surprise (albeit minor) hit, Friday spawned a film and TV franchise — all of them unfortunately without Tucker, whose frenetic screen presence and easy comic chemistry with Cube helped jump-start his film career. Puffing new life into the moribund stoner comedy genre, it also earned the approval of scribes like eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg, who called it “an energetic and genuinely funny low-budget flick” and wrote, “This is why we wade through all the really bad ones; to find the unexpected pieces of comedy gold.”
Cube reunited with Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton for 1995’s Higher Learning, an ensemble drama about racial and sexual tensions in mid ‘90s America, as seen and embodied through a diverse group of college students. As a black nationalist nicknamed Fudge, Cube gave voice to much of the movie’s political subtext, and provided a counterpoint to the unfocused rage of white supremacist Remy (Michael Rapaport). Learning’s thorny themes gave Singleton a lot to move through in a two-hour movie, and as far as most critics were concerned, he didn’t go deep enough — but others were simply happy to see a film with a message. As Todd McCarthy wrote for Variety, “Higher Learning has a great many things on its mind, which immediately places it in a rather exclusive category of American films these days.”
Say what you will about Ice Cube’s script choices in general — or about 1997’s Anaconda in particular — but when Luis Llosa was casting this B-movie spectacular and looking for someone to play Danny Rich, the baddest documentary cameraman on the Amazon, there was really only one man for the part. Who besides Ice Cube can look equally at home wielding a lens and chopping a giant anaconda to death with an axe? And sure, this is a silly flick — but at least it embraces the silliness. As Lisa Schwarzbaum put it in her review for Entertainment Weekly, “Anaconda, directed by Luis Llosa with all of the subtlety of a snake-oil salesman, is in the great tradition of cinematic cheese, as processed as Kraft Singles slices.”
Combining dark political satire with a good old-fashioned heist flick, David O. Russell’s Three Kings starred George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and (of course) Ice Cube as disillusioned Gulf War soldiers who plan to abscond with Kuwaiti gold in what seems like the perfect heist. Things don’t quite turn out that way, of course, but as the plan unfolds, Kings unloads some unflinching commentary on the war’s motivations and aftermath. For Ice Cube, it was a chance to prove his mettle with a solid cast, talented director, and terrific script; for critics, it offered a rare opportunity to see a gripping action movie with something to say. As Roger Ebert put it, “It has the freedom and recklessness of Oliver Stone or Robert Altman in their mad-dog days, and a visual style that hungers for impact.”
Ice Cube anchored an ensemble cast of character actors (like Keith David) and comedians (like Anthony Anderson) for this seriocomic look at a day in the life of disgruntled barbershop owner Calvin Palmer (Cube), who’s happy to sell his failing business to a local loan shark (David) — until he realizes what its disappearance will mean to his employees and the community at large. Like a number of Cube’s other efforts, Barbershop deals frankly with racial taboos, but it leavens its message with plenty of sharp laughs; it proved a potent combination at the box office, where the movie’s $77 million gross sparked a sequel, a spinoff, and a television series. It was popular with critics, too, among them Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, who called it “a broad, very funny, unexpectedly graceful comedy of character and community.”
Ice Cube hasn’t always had the best luck with family films (Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet? being prime examples), and when word got out that he’d be starring in an inspirational sports drama directed by Fred Durst, it seemed safe to assume that The Longshots would be more of the same. While far from successful either critically or financially, this fact-based movie — about the obstacles overcome by Jasmine Plummer (Keke Palmer) to play in the Pop Warner Super Bowl — proved a pleasant surprise for some, including Gary Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, who mused, “The Longshots is a likable enough Cinderella story, one whose heart is clearly in the right place, even if it winds up on its sleeve once too often.”
Every good police show needs a tough-as-nails captain barking orders back at the station, and for the majority of 21 Jump Street‘s five-season run, that role was filled by Steven Williams, whose knack for playing tough guys with a heart made him the perfect top cop for Johnny Depp and the gang. Williams left big shoes to fill when the series made its Jump to the big screen, but Ice Cube proved the perfect replacement, infusing his coarse Captain Dickson with a familiar (albeit slightly more profane) variation on his predecessor’s brand of no-nonsense menace. He reprised his role in 22 Jump Street, once again futilely attempting to rein in the madcap antics of Detectives Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), and he’ll presumably be back again when the series makes its inevitable return with 23 Jump Street.