Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1990)

8. Kindergarten Cop

After “Twins” proved to be a bigger hit then anyone expected, Ivan Reitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to familiar territory. Reitman literally returned to a previous story with “Ghostbusters II” and Arnold made another violent genre film with “Total Recall.” However, the two obviously enjoyed working together. It wouldn’t be long before the Austrian Oak and the Canadian comedy maker re-teamed. As with “Twins,” the film would play against Schwarzenegger’s established tough guy image. “Kindergarden Cop” would go even further in that direction, saddling the action icon with a room full of rugrats.

Detective John Kimble is a bad ass super-cop on the trail of bad guy Cullen Crisp. After pursuing Crisp and his equally villainous mom for years, Kimble gets a clue that Crisp is after his ex-wife. The cops don’t know what the woman, or her young son, look like but they do know they’re living in Astoria, Oregon. The plan is for Kimble’s female partner to go undercover as a kindergarten teacher, slowly discovering who the target is, hopefully finding Crisp soon afterwards. However, Kimble’s partner is struck with a sudden case of food poisoning. Meaning the giant, muscular cop has to go undercover. Though used to shooting creeps and cleaning up the streets, Kimble is not so used to the unique challenges of a room full of four-year-olds.

The beginning of “Kindergarten Cop” doesn’t hint much at the sillier comedy to come. Arnold first appears with a three-day stubble, dark sunglasses, a trench coat, and a shotgun in hand. He storms into a filthy drug den, shooting at goons and blowing away a couch. He cracks cheesy one-liners, such as “I’m da party poopa!” He intimidate and retrieves key witnesses while pursuing the bad guy doggedly. The only hint that “Kindergarten Cop” isn’t going to be the usual Arnold shenanigans is that the comedy is a little more self-aware then usual. (Well, and the title too.) Those expecting the usual over-the-top violence associated with Schwarzenegger films will be disappointed. Soon, the action icon is teamed up with a blatantly comedic partner, feeling sad about his estranged son, and handling a pet ferret.

Of course, contrasting Arnold’s usual action movie behavior with a roomful of silly little kids is entirely the point of “Kindergarten Cop.” Schwarzenegger fans would probably prefer to watch him killing people and cracking lame one-liners. However, the movie gets decent mileage out of the Austrian superstar screaming at kindergartners. As you’d expect, Kimble is set up as hating kids. He sternly curses at a pair of rambunctious youngster on a plane. When he first enters the classroom, the little kids are nonplussed by his intimidating behavior. They act like… Well, kindergartners. “Kindergarten Cop” has exactly one joke, that a super-hard cop is unprepared to handle the stresses of a kindergarten class. But it’s a pretty good one. It’s difficult to undersell the amusement value of Arnold screaming like a crazy person, yelling “SHUT UP!” and denying that he has a tumah.

However, even a funny movie would have difficult stretching that joke to feature length. So, inevitably, Kimble has to develop an affection for his class of little kids. At the time, Arnold was the chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. When he signed on for the movie, he insisted that kid-friendly fitness be made part of the script. Thus Kimble grabs a whistle and starts ordering the kids to march around. That an entire class of kiddies would be okay with this is a far bridge to cross. There’s some decent humor here, like when John first introduces the whistle, insisting that there are no bathrooms now. However, his transformation from action hero cop to kindergarten teacher happens a little too cleanly and quickly.

You may notice that learning to love a rowdy crowd of toddlers would force Arnold to do something he doesn’t usually do in his movies: Emote. Now, I give Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities more credit then most people usually do. The guy has fantastic comedic timing and a screen presence unlike anyone else’s. However, nobody pays to see Arnold get sad about his estranged son. Or explain to a classroom of kids that ferrets aren’t dangerous. Some of the biggest indignities the screenplay puts Schwarzenegger through is playing the ukulele, singing “Old McDonald’s Farm,” and reading Winnie the Pooh. Somehow, the action star doesn’t totally loose his sense of cool through all of this. Schwarzenegger’s effortless charm still makes “Kindergarten Cop” a lot easier to watch then it otherwise would have been. However, you can tell he’s not entirely comfortable with the material.

If “Kindergarten Cop” was content with just being a silly comedy, it probably would have been somewhat embarrassing but overall entertaining. Instead, around the half-way point, the film awkwardly introduces a number of serious elements. First off, Kimble discovers that Zach, the weird kid in class, has a physically abusive father. The way he handles this information is something that would get even the best-intended teacher fired. Before the film is over, the movie has more-or-less completely abandoned any attempt to be funny. Kimble is rescuing a kid from falling off a tower and making serious confessions to his love interest. That tonal shift not only feels at odds with the earlier parts of the movie, they also aren’t very interesting in their own right.

The key aspect of the movie’s melodramatic side is Kimble relationship with Joyce, the single mom played by Penelope Ann Miller, and her son Dominic. Compared to the goofy, cut-up humor of the first half of the film, the romance between the two characters is treated in an entirely earnest manner. They have a meet-cute at the school. They bond over a dinner, where Kimble reveals the (presumably made-up) origin for his desire to become a teacher. When he reveals that he’s actually an undercover cop sent to investigate her ex-husband, Joyce freaks out, grabs her son, and goes on the run again. Aside from being rather trite, all of this wouldn’t be so bad if Miller wasn’t sleep-walking through the role, delivering all of her dialogue in a bored monotone and barely connecting with Arnold at all.

Arnold has far better chemistry with his partner Phobe, played by Pamela Reed. Reed is a game comedic performer. She has a good time as the energetic character, hyper-actively downing way too much food in far too short a period. One of the humor high-lights of the film is her pretending to be Kimble’s sister, sporting a ridiculous Austrian accent that nevertheless fools the supporting characters. (One notable thing about “Kindergarten Cop:” Arnold is actually playing an Austrian immigrant in it and even briefly speaks German!) When the character becomes ill and begins puking all over the place, Reed leaps into that with full force as well. Reed is light enough on her feet to deliver a stiff one-liner about cars and still make it funny. Though the character has a love interest of her own, a chief fiance that is awkwardly introduced mid-way through, I sort of wish the tiny Reed and the towering Arnold ran off together at the end instead. The two make for a better couple.

Another aspect of the film’s overly serious underbelly manifests itself in the villains. Richard Tyson plays Crisp as a greasy, creepy, barely concealed psychopath. The guy exudes an obvious weirdness, revealing himself as a creep to anyone but the most oblivious. He’s blatantly evil enough to murder a drug addicted runaway in cold blood and cartoonishly bad enough that he beats a guy senseless over a toy race car. Those aspects would probably be enough for most movie villains, especially for one from a relatively light-weight comedy, but Crisp is also given a creepy mom. Played by the harsh-looking Carroll Baker, she is intense and straight-ahead, willing to kill for her son and accompanying him everywhere. Naturally, the two seem a little too close, the script adding a creepy undertone of incestuous feelings. Does something like that really belong in a movie like “Kindergarten Cop?”

In the final third, those competing tones of gritty crime flick and silly comedy collide head-on. When Crisp finally finds his son, he sets fire to the school and kidnaps the boy. This leads to a surprisingly bloody showdown in the boy’s bathroom. The indication that the movie can’t decide what it wants to be is best illustrated in how the bad guy is defeated. Remember that ferret I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it ends up saving the day, sort of. By the resolution when, predictably, Kimble chooses to be a school teacher over a cop, “Kindergarten Cop” has been totally consumed by its squishy-hearted desire to be a melodramatic family drama. I liked it better when Arnold was screaming at toddlers.

Just as “Twins” was dominated by an oppressively late eighties aesthetic, “Kindergarten Cop” is unmistakably a product of the early nineties. Randy Edelman returns to score and creates a quasi-electronic soundtrack that reeks of the time period. Behold, the steel drums and soft chirping! Another sign of the times is that the movie is a little too heavy for real young kids but obviously too goofy for full-grown adults. Thus, kids saying the darnest things co-exist with naughty sex jokes like a horny mom, played by Cathy Moriarty, attempting to seduce Kimble. Even the casting of diminutive character actress Linda Hunt as the eccentric principal of the school seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d expect a movie released in 1990 to do.

“Kindergarten Cop’s” insistence to have it both ways is its undoing. I don’t think it’s an accident that all anyone remembers about the movie is Arnold freaking out around the little kids. That’s the best part. The mushy sentimentality and the awkward attempt to fuse a crime plot onto the film are rightfully overlooked. The easy sense of breezy fun and genuine heart that kept “Twins” afloat was more difficult to recapture then you’d think. Critics at the time were fairly dismissive of the film but that didn’t stop it from becoming a huge hit, another success for Reitman and Arnold. That the movie isn’t remembered as a low-point for either proves that I’m being harder on “Kindergarten Cop” then it deserves or that both artists would make far worst stuff in the future. I’m betting on the latter. [Grade: C+]

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