Saturday 7 September 2013

Movie Review: Kindergarten Cop (1990)

An enjoyable light-weight thriller with large doses of pointy comedy and some low-key romance, Kindergarten Cop established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a major cross-genre star.

Detective John Kimble (Schwarzenegger) has been on the tail of psychotic drug trafficker Cullen Crisp Sr.(Richard Tyson) for a long time. Crisp, meantime, is tracking down his ex-wife Rachel who disappeared with their young son Cullen Jr. after purportedly stealing $3 million of Crisp's drug money. A tip points to Rachel hiding out in Astoria, Oregon. With Crisp temporarily locked up and fighting a murder charge, Kimble teams up with Detective Phoebe O'Hara (Pamela Reed) and they head to Astoria to try and track down Rachel before Crisp gets to her.

With Rachel living under an unknown assumed identity, Kimble inserts himself into the local elementary school as a substitute kindergarten teacher, much to the dismay of principal Schlowski (Linda Hunt), and sets about trying to identify which of the kids may be Cullen Jr. There are plenty of candidates, and as Kimble finds his feet as a teacher and learns to deal with the kids, the community warms up to him, and he starts a tentative romance with Joyce (Penelope Ann Miller), another teacher at the school. Egged on by his obsessed mother Eleanor, Crisp also makes his way to Astoria, aiming to abduct his son and take revenge on his ex-wife.

Kindergarten Cop does struggle at times to define itself. The film covers the spectrum from a demented, dangerous villain to cutesy six year old kids, passing through a fledgling romance and plenty of humour. The mix of comedy, violence and courtship is occasionally lumpy, and points to a movie perhaps trying to be too many things to too broad an audience, as Schwarzenegger strives to proactively appeal to a less macho-obsessed demographic.

Despite the film's schizophrenic personality, director Ivan Reitman is able to maintain good control. Working from a script by Murray Salem, Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris filled with sharp one-liners and some genuinely funny words coming out of the kids' mouth, Reitman delivers a zippy, entertaining film. Kindergarten Cop does not have a dull moment, with the story moving briskly to set-up the premise, Schwarzenegger having his classroom fun and courtship with Miller's schoolteacher, all leading to a dramatic climax at the school. The scenes of violence at an elementary school are relatively benign in terms of harm to kids, but remain quite disturbing in the context of more recent real events.

The scenic, almost idyllic setting in the small town of Astoria is a big plus, as is the large number of prominent roles dedicated to women. Kindergarten Cop is a welcome showcase for good and sometimes underrated actresses: Miller, Reed, Hunt, Baker, Cathy Moriarty and Jayne Brooke (the latter two as mothers who may be Rachel-in-hiding) all shine. Reed in particular demonstrates a strong spunk factor and deft comic timing as Detective O'Hara. Richard Tyson may be one dimensional as the bogeyman, but he is disturbing, and Baker as his mom reveals the destructive forces of manic mothering.

As for Schwarzenegger himself, Twins (1988) had established the potential for a range wider than pure action, and here he slips into whatever persona each individual scene requires. From kick-ass undercover cop in the opening 20 minutes to the doofus in the classroom matching wits with elementary kids, to the unsure man falling first in like then in love with a fellow teacher, Schwarzenegger demonstrates workable versatility and broadening ambition.

Kindergarten Cop graduates into grade school maybe not at the top of the class, but certainly with honours.

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