It is the season of Christmas miracles, and none is more fantastic and heartwarming than the following: Arnold Schwarzenegger has learned to act.

In "Kindergarten Cop," the big guy is brilliant: As a tough, savvy, weary Los Angeles undercover cop, he's the absolute master of the gutter universe who has given himself up completely to that milieu. He's so cold, he's a Mrs. Paul's Fishstick Dinner that's been in the back of the freezer since 1967.

But by a not completely unbelievable mesh of melodramatic reversals, he's forced to go undercover as a teacher in a small-town Oregon kindergarten class, the object of which exercise is to determine which of the children is the son of a big-time, bad-guy dope dealer and murderer whose wife has fled her husband's excesses.

Of course you've seen the extremely amusing preview and television ad campaign: the lummox with the Beretta, who has made a mint cracking skulls, spines and spleens, brought hysterically low by a gaggle of kindergartners.

And, to be sure, this line of comedy is well conceived and well delivered. Any parent or teacher who's ever struggled with the whimsical but iron will of children of that age will recognize the realities -- attention spans the length of butterfly dreams, toilet control iffy at best and an unquenchable need to be moist and grubby. These baby demons can reduce even the strongest among us to rage and tears and blubbering panic in seconds.

But they are also beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than any other age: Their minds have just begun to open and they are just beginning to emerge from total egocentrality to some vague concept of peers and society. They are both innocent and honest; and they are completely natural.

The wonder of "Kindergarten Cop" is that it apprehends this, and lets its cast of youngsters assert themselves in easy, natural ways. One has merely to look at a deeply phony document like "Look Who's Talking Too" to see how cheap and dispiriting it is to force adult shtick onto the spontaneity of children.

But at the same time, the movie isn't gaga-eyed with romanticism toward the society in which the kids are marooned. It understands how troubled an institution is the family, and Schwarzenegger keeps uncovering evidence of dysfunction. One boy has been beaten; several come from single-parent homes; many carry a penumbra of hurt to them. This, as much as anything, is what gets under his skin -- their utter vulnerability in a society that values other things.

Of course, the subtext of "Kindergarten Cop" is salvation. As rigid as any zealot, Schwarzenegger's John Kimble is gradually unbent by the kids. We see him making groping efforts toward rejoining the human race and, furthermore, that special heroic subset of the human race that teaches children. He becomes a great teacher, after his own somewhat Teutonic fashion.

The movie also has some wonderful secondary performances; Schwarzenegger and director Ivan Reitman have generously let the co-stars emerge from the giant shadow of the muscleman, and Pamela Reed, who plays his partner, has a great, caustic turn at his expense. "Kimble," she says at one point, "if you don't stop being such a stiff, we're going to use you for a surfboard."

An ex-TV hero named Richard Tyson plays the baby-faced, brutal dope dealer, and in the movie's most extravagant stroke of originality, his closest ally is his . . . mother. What's going on in "Kindergarten Cop" is a secret battle of families. But it's a modern spin on this ancient dilemma, arguing that new families built on love and caring can oftentimes be stronger and healthier than biological ones built on blood and neurosis. Daddy doesn't always know best, Arnold always does.

'Kindergarten Cop'

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Directed by Ivan Reitman.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.


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