Published at: Feb. 12, 2007, 7:15 a.m. CST by Moriarty
I’m going to tell you why I think HOT FUZZ is an instant classic, and why I think it represents a significant step forward for Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, but first, can we talk for a moment about the word “parody”?
HOT FUZZ is not a parody film. What Wright and Pegg do as writers and what Wright does as a director is not parody. I think there are a few episodes of SPACED where they sacrifice character to go for the joke, but just a few. SPACED was where they got to hone their comic sensibilities, and in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, they came out swinging. What they do is write character-driven comedy that is told in fluent film geek. They absolutely know the genre they’re working in, and they know that you know the genre, too. Parody is when you regurgitate a scene from a film for the purpose of making the audience say, “Oh, yeah, I recognize that.” I think the early Z-A-Z stuff like AIRPLANE! and TOP SECRET! and POLICE SQUAD! managed to transcend the genre, and I think SOUTH PARK does a bit of parody and a bit of satire, and they walk the line really well, but for the most part, the parody films that have clogged our theaters like unflushable turds for the past decade or so are just awful, artless things. Unfunny. One reference after another with no regard for context or character or emotion or anything except, “Oh, yeah, I recognize that.”
When I say that Wright and Pegg are great screenwriters, it’s because I think they’ve managed to take the things they did well in SHAUN and do them again, and I think they’ve actually fixed what they needed to fix, structural issues that sort of deflate SHAUN for some of the third act. The HOT FUZZ script reminds me of the early work of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, and that is not a comparison I make lightly. I love the scripts for I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND and USED CARS and 1941 and, especially, BACK TO THE FUTURE. The scripts those guys wrote as a team were remarkable machines, and I would say that HOT FUZZ is Wright/Pegg’s USED CARS, a blisteringly funny film that wants nothing more than to entertain. HOT FUZZ is certainly not a film for young audiences. This is not a kid’s film. It is profane at times, and surprisingly violent. And that’s a good thing. HOT FUZZ has some raunch to it, but it’s never juvenile.
By now, you know the set-up. Pegg plays Nick Angel, the best cop in London. He’s so good that he is “promoted” right out of town, to a small village called Sandford, where nothing ever happens. That’s where he meets Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), his new partner, who also happens to be a maniac for cop movies of all sorts. When accidents start to pile up in the village, Angel is convinced that they aren’t accidents at all, and he’s determined to crack what he believes may be the biggest case of his career.
It’s no more nonsensical than the typical Hollywood action movie set-up, and part of the pleasure of it is just how quickly things get moving. It’s a very silly set-up, sure, but part of the pleasure of that first sequence is seeing Steve Coogan, Martin Freeman, and Bill Nighy play a scene together. And as far as getting Angel all the way out to Sandford, it’s handled so well in a quick series of shots that the movie is off and running just about the time people are going to get fully settled into their chairs. No time is wasted. Every scene gives you bits of information that pay off somewhere else in the movie.
Which isn’t to say that this is a movie that’s all about plot. The script spends just as much time setting up character as it does setting up the story, and if this film has any great strength, it’s how rich the entire supporting cast of characters is. The script does a great job of setting up pretty much each and every person in Sandford. Some of them get a lot of screentime, some only get a few scenes, but it feels like a real community. This is one of those films that plays different the first time you see it than it does the second time, and that’s because you spend most of your first viewing trying to piece together the film’s central mystery. The second time through, it’s fun to watch the villain of the film play off of Pegg and Frost, and you pick up a number of details in the performances that become even funnier. Wright packed Sandford with a number of great English character actors. Hell, just inside the police station, you’ve got Olivia Colman (who was so funny on both PEEP SHOW and GREEN WING), the brilliant Bill Bailey (who I first flipped for on BLACK BOOKS) playing a really strange and wonderful role, Tim Barlow, and the always-great Jim Broadbent as Nick Frost’s father, the Chief Inspector for Sandford.
Special note has to be made, though, of The Andys, a pair of detectives. I’ve never really thought of Paddy Considine as a comedic actor. The two films of his where he’s knocked me out lately were DEAD MAN’S SHOES and IN AMERICA, neither one of which I’d describe as “hilarious.” Seeing him play off of Rafe Spall here, I am now convinced that Considine is capable of anything. The two of them steal almost every moment they’re onscreen, no easy feat when you’ve got a cast this good around them.
Then you’ve got the rest of the village, peopled with actors like David Bradley, Adam Buxton (of THE ADAM & JOE SHOW, which you should seek out if you’ve never heard of it), Paul “Belloq” Freeman, Anne Reid, Billie Whitelaw (the nanny from THE OMEN), Stuart Wilson, and, in one of the film’s slyest jokes, Edward Woodward. Again... not one of them is wasted. I especially love Timothy Dalton in this film. Dalton’s always underrated, especially by Bond fans, and he attacks his role in this film with gusto. He makes me laugh doing things as simple as offering someone a biscuit or jogging. It’s the sort of performance that should lead to a lot more work for him if there’s any justice. I’m surprised by how spry he is, and how forceful his personality is in the film, and I’m sure at least part of that is because of just how much fun the role is.
Of course, the heart and soul of the film is the relationship between Pegg and Frost, and here's where they both really prove themselves as actors. They're not just playing Shaun and Ed in cop uniforms. Instead, they both create new characters here. Pegg was such a great dedicated slacker in SPACED and SHAUN that it's a bit of a shock to see him play a buttoned-down hardass like Nick Angel. Frost is far sweeter here as Danny than he was as Ed, and that childlike quality is what makes Danny the center of the film. There's a turn at the start of the third act that actually shocked and scared me because of how invested I was in Frost's work, and the fact that I fell for it is an indicator of just how well he vanishes into the role. Both of them have grown enormously as performers over the last few years, and their rapport is the sort of thing that directors dream of. You can't create chemistry like this... it either happens naturally, or you're just out of luck.
Last note on the cast of the film: there are two Oscar winners who show up in the film in secret roles. I picked one of them out immediately, but only spotted the other one when I saw the film the second time. I’m not going to tell you who they are or where they are because that would ruin the fun. I’ll just tell you to keep your eyes peeled, because IMDb isn’t going to help you. You’ll have to get this one on your own.
Now, obviously this is a riff on action movies. You see that new poster with all the fire on it, and that great new tag line (“They’re Bad Boys. They’re Lethal Weapons. They’re Hot Fuzz.”) and you know immediately what the archetypes are that they’re playing with in this film. Like I said... don’t expect any sort of direct parody here. Instead, these guys have digested every action film they’ve ever seen and they’ve spit back out something that speaks fluent action movie. I think this may be why this film ends up making more money in the US than SHAUN did; not everyone here speaks zombie movie, but action movies are in our blood.
When the action does finally kick in, primarily during the third act of the film, it works incredibly well. Wright understands the geography of staging an action scene in an innate way, and he also knows how to maximize the impact of every beat. He doesn’t have the budget of a Bruckheimer movie to play with, but he makes up for that with invention and with energy. For much of act two, though, the movie builds like a horror film, and there’s one beat in particular that puts me in mind of early Peter Jackson, a gleefully gory sequence that got screams out of the audience both times I saw the film. It's that fine line which the film walks so well that makes me think this is a classic of sorts. It's a rare movie that straddles genres and manages to satisfy fully as both.
There’s so much in the film that makes me giddy, but I don’t want to give things away. After all, it may be opening in the UK this week, but we won’t see the film here in the US until this April. It’s going to be tough to keep spoilers to a minimum, especially involving the resolution to the mystery, but I’ll certainly do my best. I can mention the great score by David Arnold, which occasionally quotes other action films and which also features a few cues written by Robert Rodriguez. I can mention the razor-sharp editing that further refines the style Wright’s been polishing since the beginning of SPACED. He does venture into Tony Scott territory a bit here, but only in a few moments, and only to sarcastic effect. When you see where he uses the MAN ON FIRE/DOMINO Avidfart freakout, it’s a pretty wicked indictment of the effect in general. I can mention the way both POINT BREAK and BAD BOYS II inform this film specifically, and the way the latent homoeroticism of cop films is played perfectly here.
I’m sure we’ll have more to say about HOT FUZZ between now and the release in the US, but for now, I’m envious of viewers in the UK who get to see it as many times as they want starting this weekend. Between this and David Fincher’s astonishing ZODIAC, 2007 is off to one hell of a start for me as a viewer. Hopefully I’ll have my review of that one ready a little later this week.
For now, let’s just say that HOT FUZZ has set the bar very high for the year ahead, and I’m looking forward to seeing who manages to rise to the challenge.