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MMYIF: Kindergarten Cop

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Kindergarten Cop
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Penelope Ann Miller, Pamela Reed
Released: December 21, 1990

A tough cop must pose as a kindergarten teacher in order to locate a dangerous criminal's ex-wife, who may hold the key to putting him behind bars.

What I Thought Then

I knew Arnold primarily from Predator, The Running Man, and Twins, and I remember this being an amusing fish-out-of-water comedy with some fun action beats and some memorable lines.

What I Think Now

Can we just take a moment to marvel at how weird Arnold Schwarzeneggar's career was? I mean, there was a stretch where this Austrian behemoth was routinely cast as an all-American everyman because he was the world's biggest action star and after Die Hard came out every action film had to be about an everyman facing impossible odds in order to save his family or some such. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, we are led to believe that Arnold was a US commando, an American spy, a father trying to find a toy at Christmas, and--least implausibly--and unstoppable killing machine from the future. These movies rarely made any attempt to hide his muscles or explain away his accent. We, as a society, just blithely went along with it because we liked seeing him kick ass in movies.


Kiundergarten Cop finds Arnold in the "action hero doing self-parody in family films in order to appeal to a broader audience" phase of his career. The set-up is... oddly convoluted, actually. He's John Kimble, a big city (presumably L.A.) cop who's been tracking down a drug dealer named Crisp (Richard Tyson) and finally catches him on a murder rap. The case is flimsy, though, so they want to firm it up by finding Crisp's ex-wife, who ran away years ago with their then-infant son and $3 million and are now living in Astoria, Oregon where the then-infant son is now a kindergartener. Crisp knows this too, so the cops send Kimble and O'Hara (Pamela Reed doing some brilliant deadpan comedy) up to Astoria to find the ex-wife and convince her to testify while Crisp is awaiting trial. Kimble will be working with local law enforcement to track down leads and O'Hara will be undercover as a kindergarten teacher trying to figure out which of those children is Crisp's son. But--plot twist!--O'Hara gets a stomach bug on the way up, so Kimble has to step in as the substitute teacher. Hijinks ensue.

Overall this is a movie with some serious logic problems that skates by on Schwarzeneggar's charisma and funny kid stuff. How does Kimble get a ferret all the way to Oregon without anyone noticing? It must have been in his carry-on luggage? They're only supposed to be in Astoria for a few days, but it's at least weeks and feels like it could easily be a month. There's a gag in the end where two kids are making out in the teacher's lounge during a fire drill, only it's an elementary school and these two are clearly adolescents. There's a whole joke around a misremembering of the Gettysburg address that doesn't play at all if you know the actual opening line of the speech. It's all minor stuff that doesn't take you out of the movie too badly in the moment, but it starts to add up. And while we're criticizing things, Crisp is a ridiculously slimy 90s-villain stereotype with his cigarettes and ponytail and fancy suit that's maybe a little too big. He looks like he got punched out of a Steven Seagal movie and accidentally landed in this one. The movie also has a bit of a tone problem. It's trying to be a police actioner and a family film at the same time and while it mostly works, you get some tonal whiplash from time to time. The opening sequence, for instance, is solidly in the cop-drama mold, right down to the ominous synth score, but the credits playing over the top of it are stylized with crayon lines and big, round fonts. Later you get action moments playing against family film schmaltzy piano score. It's a little weird. My last gripe is that there's a teensy bit of gay panic content in there, mostly played for humor. Indeed, one of the ways we know Crisp is a bad guy (as if there weren't plenty of other cues) is that he's slightly effeminate.

But Arnold's sheer force of presence tends to override everything else. We're here to watch him kick ass and also watch him play against type as a humorously bumbling, fatherly role model to six-year-olds, apparently. He makes the film imminently watchable, despite it being fairly light on the action front. There's also some solid comedy. I've already mentioned Pamela Reed, and there are some amusing gags from child actors Miko Hughes and Sarah Rose Karr. The cast is rounded out with character actors like Cathy Moriarty, Jayne Brook, Park Overall, and Richard Portnow. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Angela Bassett as a flight attendant (Oh, hey, Angela Bassett's in this!) The dialog pops with quotable lines like "I'm not a policeman, I'm a princess" and "You're not so tough without your car, are you?" Hat tip to director Ivan Reitman who pulls off the balance between humor and serious plot business, if not as effortlessly as he did in Ghostbusters, then at least better than his contemporaries.


Maybe? It's inessential, but it has a decent script and some charming kid scenes.

Tune in next week to see a legendary outlaw...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.


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