Kindergarten Cop turns 30 years old this month. In its time it was considered an awkward child: too grim for kids and too pandering for adults. It was, in fact, exactly what it was supposed to be though: the pubescent stage of the Schwarzenegger trilogy that director Ivan Reitman began in 1988 with Twins and concluded with the 1994 film, Junior.
The red thread running through this Reitman-Schwarzenegger trilogy is the development of an archetypal persona embodied at different developmental stages by Schwarzenegger. In the opening film of the trilogy, Twins, Arnold is the naïve, innocent Julius learning how to survive in the world through his relationship with estranged twin brother, Vince (played by Danny DeVito). In the closing film, Junior, he is Dr. Alex Hesse, transcending his own self through the birth of a child (with the assistance of his gynecologist colleague, Dr. Larry Arbogast (also played by DeVito). In a sense, it is the “closing” of the “self” promoted through the first half of the trilogy to the revelation of a new self, which is concerned beyond itself with the burgeoning selfhood of another person.
Kindergarten Cop is the middle child, a maturation of the Reitman-Schwarzenegger collaboration sans-DeVito. It is also the zenith of the trilogy (as Junior’s poor box-office performance signaled the end of any future endeavors of its ilk). Yet, the Reitman-Schwarzenegger trilogy was like many of its cinematic sister-stars (Tom Hanks’ Big, John Candy’s Uncle Buck, Bill Murray’s What About Bob?, etc.) that created cultural divots in the pop culture landscape but no game-changing monuments (i.e. Animal House). We know these movies had an impact, but they fade into the cultural milieu.
They didn’t change the landscape so much as provide a transitional point to wherever it’s going next. They didn’t so much cause a dramatic shift in the cultural ambience so much as try not to soil the momentum by farting in the room before leaving and destroying the whole mise-en-scene of the space.
Kindergarten Cop begins with John Kimble clearing a dance club with a loaded shotgun to wrangle a witness to testify for an important case Kimble is working on. It’s the Terminator Schwarzenegger we see at the beginning. No sense of tact. Untethered testosterone blowing holes in plywood walls when a simple court order might have done. He had to be humbled. He had to grow up. Kimble must be broken in order to be re-made.
The movie moves from Last Action Hero to a family-friendly, suburban man out-of-his-comfort-zone comedy (a la Charles Grodin in Beethoven). In the midst we see a love story, a man transforming from a reckless adult into an archetypal father figure, a parental figure defending his child… slowly.
Kimble is assembling himself into a new man, hitting important fatherly benchmarks along the way. Near the end of the movie Kimble punches an abusive father but castigates himself for having done so in front of the schoolchildren. He questions himself: something the gun-toting Kimble at the beginning never would have done. He is no longer proud of violence and force, but now sees the necessity of exercising it (when essential) with prudence. He is not a mindless set of muscles anymore wildly throwing punches, but a disciplined paternal character with the emotional and spiritual interests of the next generation in mind.
These kinds of movies (Big, Uncle Buck, etc.) are hard for me to watch. They seem insufferable. Not exactly funny since their comedy touchstone has long since passed. The jokes don’t hit anymore because they’re thirty years behind the zeitgeist. Insufferable to me, mainly, because they were so important to my five-year-old self and I struggle to tolerate them in my current bedraggled thirty-something incarnation.
My frontal lobe keeps repeating to me: it’s dated, it’s dated, it’s dated… yet, I think, watching with a patient eye toward what kind of message is being brought about – the transformation of masculinity from Rambo-esque, dick-swinging meathead to a measured, grounded man – is important. I did. Eventually. And, at some point in the viewing process, I felt my brain starting to burn. It was fine. Just wait for the pay-off, Nick Hilbourn. Look at how he changes, Nick Hilbourn. You can do it, too. And don’t worry. It’s not a tumor. It’s a transformative, maturation experience.