YOU'VE PROBABLY noticed by now that we're currently chafing under a rash of movies about kids. After the baby boomlet of the late '80s, tyke-centered scripts look likely to be the "high concept" of the '90s.
"Kindergarten Cop," which playfully pits live-action figure Arnold Schwarzenegger against a classroom full of hyperanimated tots, is likely to prove the pick of the litter. Cute with a capital K, with a premise as fresh as a new pencil case (as cop movies go), it should give "Home Alone," "Three Men and a Little Lady" and "Look Who's Talking Too" a run for your holiday bucks.
But here's a caveat: Though "Kindergarten Cop" is made to look quite cuddly in the ads, parents may deem it too graphically and casually violent for kid consumption, with drug dealing, murder, child abuse, and kidnapping situated matter-of-factly amid the gleeful kids 'n' cops chaos.
Schwarzenegger plays hard-guy L.A. detective John Kimble, who has been hounding ultra-bad guy Cullen Crisp (Richard Tyson), a murderous drug dealer, for a long time. It turns out that Tyson is obsessed with locating his kindergarten-aged son, who Mom spirited away after divorcing his deranged and dangerous daddy. In order to catch Tyson, Schwarzenegger and partner Pamela Reed -- a former teacher -- are sent undercover to Astoria, Ore., where Tyson's family is living incognito. But when Reed gets sick, Schwarzenegger has no choice but to fill in, facing his toughest assignment unarmed.
"It's like the ocean," one teacher warns him. "You don't want to turn your back on it."
Schwarzenegger proves artful at finding ways of interrogating the kids, in hopes of finding Tyson's son. And cribbing a bit from his role as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, the script has Arnold bark, "You kids are soft . . . it's time now to turn this mush into muscles!" as he makes them over into an ace fire-drill squad.
Director Ivan Reitman, who last engineered a Schwarzenegger performance in "Twins," makes more of "Kindergarten Cop" than just a novel situation (there's more than a touch of "Twin Peaks" in Astoria's small-town ambiance). He's got a way with kids, and found a remarkable ensemble of 30 antic urchins to work with, cashing in on kindergarten's comic terrain and the blurted brutal honesty of the kids.
The contrast between the stubbly, mirror-shaded Arnold, plowing "Terminator"-style through malls and nightclubs, and the clean-shaven, polo-shirted Arnold, maneuvering a Hula-Hoop before milk-and-cookies time, is rich. The Great Stone Man never looks more alien than when he smiles, but the expression starts to become him, and as he grows more human through his contact with the kids, Schwarzenegger begins to exude actual warmth.
He also has a nicely tart rapport with flip assistant Reed. Penelope Ann Miller, a third-grade teacher and mom who has eyes for Schwarzenegger, goes a little overboard in her quest for adorableness. Tyson, however, is eminently hissable as the psycho-daddy with an unwholesome Oedipal thing for his own mom, played by grown-up "Baby Doll" Carroll Baker.
KINDERGARTEN COP (PG-13) -- Area theaters.