Review: Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Most macho action stars go through a phase where they star in family-friendly entertainment in a bid to become a four-quadrant box office star. Dwayne Johnson did it. Bruce Willis did it. Hell, even Vin Diesel did it. But none of these macho movie stars of the past 30 years have been as successful in wedding their action chops with saccharine family fare as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Case in point: Kindergarten Cop.
The 1990 family film directed by Ivan Reitman, who had previously worked with Schwarzenegger in the 1988 blockbuster, Twins, and who would go on to direct him in Junior, is a naked attempt to make comedy out of subverting Schwarzenegger’s reputation as the undisputed macho man of Hollywood. It’s not the first attempt to do so, but it is likely the best.
Kindergarten Cop finds Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy, loose cannon cop going undercover as a Kindergarten teacher in order to bust a baddie. Unlike Twins, which makes Schwarzenegger a sincere, goofy dolt from the get go, Kindergarten Cop starts with Schwarzenegger as we think of him: a hulking, bruising killing machine. Not literally, this time, even if his outfit in the opening scene intentionally resembles that of his character in The Terminator. But the film starts with Schwarzenegger breaking bad guys’ faces and casually carrying a shotgun under his trenchcoat. He’s as tough as they come. But soon enough, he’s forced into pretending to be a Kindergarten teacher and we start to see the softer side of the character.
The middle section of the film mostly consists of Schwarzenegger’s cop learning to become a real Kindergarten teacher and bonding with the children in his class. There are the early failures to rein in so many children, predictable moments of potty humour, and more than a few calculated moments meant to tug at your heart strings. The entire arc of the character, from tough-guy cop to kind-hearted Kindergarten teacher, is complete mush, but it’s still effective. Perhaps this is because the film acts as a kind of wish fulfillment, showing how people can mellow their ways and find a new purpose in life, or perhaps it’s simply that such nakedly sentimental stories will always have some appeal to mass audiences.
Whatever the case, the story isn’t the reason the film is worth remembering. That’d be Schwarzenegger, who showcases his incredible charisma as a performer throughout. Over the years, Schwarzenegger has been criticized for having a lack of depth as an actor, but that criticism overlooks the fact that within his specific range, he’s incredibly effective. And within that range is an underrated gift for sincerity on screen. No matter how absurd a situation the film puts him in, whether bonding with a lonely 5-year-old or panicking during a fire drill, Schwarzenegger seems credible and earnest. In his best performances, such as in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he mines his sincerity for all its worth. While his performance in Kindergarten Cop isn’t up to the level of T2, it does register as warm and genuine, the kind of performance that reminds you of how Schwarzenegger’s skills as an actor are about more than his physicality.
Schwarzenegger is helped along by the serviceable script, and a few winning supporting performances, particularly Richard Tyson as the villain and Pamela Reed as the partner to Schwarzenegger’s cop. Tyson has a strange energy as the villain, underplaying moments and letting his bizarre physical presence carry much of the menace. Reed, meanwhile, is an effective supporting comedian, throwing in strong line readings and providing an enviable pep that makes films like this work. A scene of her pretending to be the Austrian sister of Schwarzenegger’s character is particularly fun.
As for the filmmaking itself, Reitman doesn’t do much to distinguish himself behind the camera, but he does maintain a brisk pace and mine as much tension from the climax as possible. For a director who’s chief strength is comedy, he has always demonstrated a talent for blending genres moment to moment, as he does here.
Kindergarten Cop is the best of Schwarzenegger’s family films, more satisfying than Twins, let alone the disaster that is Jingle All the Way. Looking back on it, it’s a clear indication of why Arnold Schwarzenegger deserved the stardom he found. Few actors with a body befitting a homicidal robot or a Greek god come off as so genuinely human.
7 out of 10
Kindergarten Cop (1990, USA)
Directed by Ivan Reitman; written by Murray Salem, Herschel Weingrod, and Timothy Harris, based on a story by Salem; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Penelope Ann Miller, Pamela Reed, Linda Hunt, Richard Tyson, Carroll Baker.