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The Impossible Paradox of ‘Kindergarten Cop’

As we approach the movie’s 30th anniversary, it becomes harder and harder to figure out why anyone thought a trigger-happy cop in an elementary school would be funny. But… it still kinda is?

Imagine a movie about an adult man bringing guns to an elementary school. He’s pretending to be a teacher and he screams violently at his young students whenever he thinks they’re out of line. He runs the class like boot camp, with all its rigorous physical training. Worst of all, this man’s mere presence lures a sociopath to the school, culminating in a child being taken hostage and a bloody shoot-out in the gym shower room. 

Now, imagine this movie is also a family comedy.

Kindergarten Cop is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, although “celebrating” might be the wrong word. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a police detective who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher, the movie was a solid hit when it came out in 1990, more than tripling its $26 million budget. Audiences loved the silliness of Schwarzenegger — doing his best Dirty Harry impression — getting flustered by a bunch of rambunctious five- and six-year-olds. These days, though, the movie is a lot more complicated.

The idea of a comedy movie — a rather family-friendly comedy, at that — ending with a shootout in a school and a child held hostage by his own father is unthinkable in 2020, and deservedly so. But Kindergarten Cop goes far, far beyond that. The movie starts with Schwarzenegger as John Kimble, who’s obsessed with catching Cullen Crisp (Richard Tyson), a drug kingpin he’s been unable to bust for five years. Kimble is so hard-boiled he handcuffs a woman dependent on drugs to her boyfriend (whom Crisp had just murdered) so he can force her to be a material witness, which would be disturbingly hardcore even in a straight-up police procedural.

Kimble and his partner head to Oregon to find Crisp’s ex-wife, who’s in hiding with their child; all they know is the kid is in the local elementary school. But when Kimble’s partner gets sick with a stomach bug, the badass cop has to pretend to be the new kindergarten teacher in hopes of figuring out which is Crisp’s kid, so he can convince the mom to testify against her ex, and here’s where the comedy comes in: The man we saw using a shotgun instead of a warrant is now completely overpowered by a bunch of hyperactive 5- and 6-year-olds.

To call Kindergarten Cop problematic is a woeful understatement. When a mom comes to school upset that her son is playing with dolls, Kimble assures her the kid’s doing so because he’s obsessed with looking up girl’s skirts, which we see on multiple occasions. The mom is, of course, purely relieved, the unspoken but obvious implication being, at least he’s not gay. There’s a lot of “kids say the darndest things” gags in here, including one adorable ragamuffin who chants “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina” like a mantra, and a girl who, when asked what her dad does for a living, replies, “My dad repairs cars for women who are pinheads,” the clear idea being that’s what’s she’s learned at home. When Kimble learns a student and his mother are being abused by the father, the teacher beats the crap out of him instead of calling the authorities (although when it happens again, Kimble does declare he’s “pressing charges”). There’s a lot more to cringe over than laugh at. 

The problem is, though, there’s still stuff to laugh at! Even 30 years later, it’s genuinely funny to see small children run roughshod over the Austrian Oak, as is seeing the action star in a cartoon cowboy outfit singing “Old MacDonald” to his students. The scene where a frazzled Schwarzenegger is trying to convince his precocious students that his headache is “NOT A TOOMAH!” is still a comedic gem. I laughed out loud when, after Arnold’s character admits he’s from Austria (which I don’t ever remember happening in a single other Schwarzenegger flick) earlier in the film, his partner (Pamela Reed) has to pretend to be his sister and suddenly busts out her own Austrian accent to maintain their cover.

More importantly, the film’s core premise — the juxtaposition of a big tough action hero like Schwarzenegger with a bunch of cute kids — is such an undeniably great premise that movies have been using the same formula since its premiere, from 1993’s Mr. Nanny (in which wrestler Hulk Hogan is a wrestler-turned-babysitter) to 2005’s The Pacifier (starring Vin Diesel as a Navy SEAL who goes undercover as a babysitter) to this year’s My Spy (where Dave Bautista plays a CIA agent who becomes a reluctant mentor to a 9-year-old), and there are many, many more such movies. It is (usually) funny to see large, strong men who spend their time beating bad guys half-to-death at the mercy of small children.

Kindergarten Cop isn’t unique in mixing badasses and kids, then, nor action and comedy (even the otherwise appallingly saccharine Three Men and a Baby, from three years earlier, inexplicably climaxes with a face-off with heroin dealers atop an abandoned construction site). That the film was once considered hilarious but is now recognized as having some seriously retrograde attitudes toward gender, sexuality and abuse by law enforcement is also relatively unremarkable — comedy has always aged worse than just about any other genre. No, what makes the film so confusing and disconcerting in 2020 is how it unwittingly embodies the totality of one of the greatest, most contentious modern debates in America: The role of police in schools.

The incongruity of watching what, to this point, has mostly been a lighthearted comedy culminate in a final act where Kimble (armed) pursues Crisp (also armed) as he chases his own child through the gymnasium bathroom is perturbing at best. Even though no students have guns or get shot, it’s impossible to watch the scene without images of decades of school shootings and incidences of police brutality intruding upon your viewing, no matter how many darndest things kids say right beforehand. It doesn’t negate the movie that led up to it; rather, it adds a second, queasily unsettling dimension to the film, one that exists parallel to its earnestly silly comedy. Imagine finding out at the end of the original Toy Story that it’s set on September 10, 2001, and Andy’s dad works at the World Trade Center. Technically, nothing about the movie’s plot would change, but it would utterly transform the way we read the film.

A modern perspective reveals the contradictions that Kindergarten Cop unknowingly harbored in its DNA. It’s a movie that shows the value of education and compassion over aggression and violence, but at the same time, it still ends with a cop gunning down the bad guy to save the day. Kimble quits being a cop to become a teacher at the end, but at no point is he held accountable — never even admonished — for the many crimes he commits while trying to catch Crisp in the film’s first act. Again, none of this is all that surprising for a film made in 1990, but the dissonance between the two opposing sets of values has only grown over time.

It’s grown so much, in fact, that Kindergarten Cop made headlines earlier this month. The film was slated to lead off the Portland Northwest Film Center’s drive-in movie series as an important part of Oregon filmmaking, as the film was made and set in Astoria. But Portland author Lois Leveen tweeted her concerns about the film’s inclusion at the beginning of the month [sic]:

National reckoning on overpolicing is a weird time to revive Kindergarten Cop. IRL, we are trying to end the school-to-prison pipeline. There’s nothing entertaining about the presence of police in schools, which feeds the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline in which African American, Latinx and other kids of color are criminalized rather than educated. Five- and 6-year-olds are handcuffed and hauled off to jail routinely in this country. And this criminalizing of children increases dramatically when cops are assigned to work in schools. 

Although Schwarzenegger doesn’t specifically play a School Resource Officer — a role whose presence is symbiotic with the school-to-prison pipeline — that doesn’t negate any of Leveen’s comments, and consciously or not, Kindergarten Cop certainly evokes the issue when you watch it today. Likewise, the movie surely didn’t intend to make future audiences unavoidably think of gun violence in schools during its climax — nothing in it, in fact, correlates to an actual school shooting other than the fact that two people are carrying guns in a school — but still, it’s a specter that can’t be removed for a modern audience.

Kindergarten Cop is a paradox: a problematic mess that represents current hot-button issues while also still being the sweet, silly movie people loved back in the 1990s. It’s a two-hour contradiction 30 years in the making, an earnest comedy with too many modern tragic tones, a 1980s action flick that secretly thinks teachers are the real heroes, an amalgamation of irreconcilable ideas that somehow still work as a movie. There’s no correct takes on Kindergarten Cop, because they’re all valid.

You can’t solve a paradox. All you can do is marvel that it exists.

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