Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kindergarten Cop

Kindergarten Cop (1990), directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, raises the question: just who exactly was this movie made for? Determining its target audience is something of a challenge. Despite the title - shown on the DVD cover in cutesy lettering while a frazzled Arnold is overwhelmed by a bunch of rowdy pee-wees - this is not a children's film.  There are some pretty intense and violent scenes that would frighten children, and yet the basic premise of the movie, the brawny man's man forced to act like a girly-man, suggests more family-friendly entertainment that an action-movie audience has zero interest in. It's oil and water, but somehow, it holds together. I can't call it a great film - the plot is too contrived and nonsensical for that - but the presence of Arnold, plus Reitman's steady hand behind the camera, carries a movie that is alternatively funny and thrilling.

LA detective John Kimble (Schwarzenegger) has been trying to nail Cullen Crisp (Richard Tyson), a nasty drug dealer with an even nastier mother (Carroll Baker). When Kimble learns that Crisp's ex-wife absconded with $3 million in drug money and their young son to a small town in Oregon, he and his partner Phoebe (Pamela Reed) head there to locate the ex and convince her to testify against Crisp. The plan is for Phoebe, a former teacher, to work undercover in the kindergarten class to locate the son, but when she falls sick with food poisoning, Kimble must step in and pose as the teacher (good thing this movie was made before everyone was online; otherwise all the parents would be wondering after a quick Google search why a police officer with no teaching credentials would be allowed in a classroom).

What separates Arnold from other brawny action stars such as Sylvester Stallone is his willingness to look silly. Stallone might technically be the better actor, but he takes himself so seriously, but Arnold is unafraid to look foolish, be the butt of the joke, or undercut his tough-guy, macho image. Sure, it can make for some incredibly cheesy and sometimes "bad" movies, but it rarely makes for a movie that is forgettable or boring. Say what you will about Arnold as an actor, but he's smart enough to recognize his limitations and pick projects that turn them into strengths. Such is the case with Kindergarten Cop.

The first act of the film demonstrates Kimble is a determined, effective, crass cop when he pursues Crisp through a mall and then tracks a witness to a crack house ("I'm da the party pooper," he declares after a blast with his shotgun). We also see how he easily little kids annoy him; he demonstrates this on an airplane, breaking a pencil in two and telling the kid who keeps kicking his seat that he'll do the same to him if he keeps it up. Then, Arnold gets to the class and discovers he is ill-prepared for dealing with a bunch of little kids.

These are some wild and crazy kids, and Arnold has no idea, at first, how to control them. They run rampant through the room, steal each other's lunches, climb on desks, hoot, holler, cry about having to go to the bathroom, and make a mess with the art supplies until Arnold can take no more. Sure, it's an obvious setup - the action star confronting normal, everyday problems - but Kindergarten Cop is probably the best of this cheesy cinematic sub-genre. Seeing the interaction between Arnold and these tykes is pretty funny and at times even sweet (especially when Arnold explains to them how a divorce doesn't mean a father no longer loves his children).

Arnold is Arnold, and that's why we love him, but Kindergarten Cop gives him some solid supporting help. My favorite character in the movie is the principal, Miss Schlowski (Linda Hunt). She is literally half Arnold's size, and yet, she is not intimidated by him in the slightest. If anything, he's a bit afraid of her. Penelope Anne Miller is also here as a teacher that Arnold romances and whose son is in his class, and she's pretty good, and if you can't figure out what her secret is, then you clearly weren't reading the plot summary. The kids are obnoxiously cute, but that's kind of the point, and a number of them get moments to shine, most notably the kid played by Miko Hughes from Pet Sematery who likes to announce to class that "Boys have a penis. Girls have a vagina" (Arnold's stone-faced response: "Thanks for the tip.").

Tyson and Baker are effective, respectively sleazy and domineering but equally narcissistic, although this does get back to the central contradiction of the movie. The kindergarten material has scenes of Arnold and the kids bonding, interacting, and being silly, and this is all rather cutesy. But the crime stuff has drug dealing, murders, autopsies, kidnappings, arson, child and spousal abuse, and other material that's definitely not appropriate for children. Again, I ask: who was this movie made for?

I posed that question on my Facebook wall the day after I watched the movie. The responses from my friends included "Ferret Lovers," "Dale Schmidlapp of Sioux Falls, Iowa," and "It's not made for a tumor." My friend Mike wrote, "Schwarzenegger fans who cherish every dumb line that comes out of his mouth," to which I responded "That really should be all of us."

Kindergarten Cop is sort of the epitome of a Schwarzennegger movie. It's loud, violent, cheesy, action-packed, silly, funny, intense, and better made than most people probably give it credit for.  Maybe as a whole, it's not a "good" movie, but it is loaded with entertaining scenes that demonstrate all things about Arnold we love. If the sight of a bug-eyed, gap-toothed Arnold Schwarzennegar screaming at the top of his lungs at a group of kindergartners is not considered entertainment by you, I don't know what else to say.

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