Hot Fuzz (2007)
Dir. Edgar Wright; Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
[4 out of 4 stars]
There is something wonderful about rewatching a movie you love. We can never quite recreate the feeling we had when we first saw a movie, something particularly true for any that relies on plot twists and big reveals, but there is nonetheless a certain quality to revisiting a film again and again and finding that it continues to reward you. In this regard I think Roger Ebert put it quite well in his review of Casablanca (1942): “seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” We learn the lyrics and the hooks of the songs we love so that such familiarity can guide us through it, finding ways of thinking about it and enjoying it that were not available the first time around. You simply cannot pay careful attention to all the flourishes and intricacies when you’re too busy figuring out what exactly you’re watching or listening to. I found myself thinking about all of this quite a bit when I sat down a few weeks ago to rewatch Hot Fuzz (2007), Edgar Wright’s brilliant action satire. By this point I have seen the movie at least a dozen times, more than a few of those times this past winter when my friend Anna and I were prepping to make our short film Locally Sourced (2019) and needed inspiration. I know all the jokes and am no longer surprised by the twists, but that fact does little to stop my enjoyment. So, as opposed to writing about a newer movie as I most often try to do, I’ve decided that this week I’m going to settle in and reflect on a consistent favorite that I will never get tired of putting on.
Hot Fuzz centers on Sgt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) of the London Metropolitan Police Force, a police officer so skilled that the Chief Inspector (Bill Nighy) decides to send him away because he’s “making [them] all look bad.” Nicholas’ new post is the picturesque and tranquil town of Sandford, somewhere in the English countryside. Nicholas is quite put out by what he sees as a stunning demotion, and struggles when he is confronted with a town that is more focused on doing things for “the greater good” than following the letter of the law. Most of the townsfolk are just as perturbed by this hot-shot cop who wants to bring his city skills to their quiet home, and so a tenuous peace emerges as Nicholas settles in. This is first tested when he arrests Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) for public intoxication, only to find out the next morning that Danny is Town Inspector Frank Butterman’s (Jim Broadbent) son, and also a police officer himself. Nonetheless, after their first tensions, Danny and Nicholas settle into a wonderful partner dynamic with Danny fascinated by Nicholas’ city crime fighting, and Nicholas slowly coming around to the Sandford life. Yet, all is not as it seems in Sandford, and after a string of “accidents” that turn out to not be so accidental, Nicholas uncovers the deadly truth about Sandford.
As far as plotlines go, Hot Fuzz has one of the more inventively hybridized ones out there. Wright and Pegg have written a screenplay that merges the Hollywood action tropes of moves like Lethal Weapon (1987) and Point Break (1991) with the backdrop and sensibilities of the English countryside normally on display in more buttoned-up fare such as Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) or Sense and Sensibility (1995). These are settings and storylines that you would never imagine going together, and it is that impulse that provides an avenue for such imaginative satire. Wright and Pegg use the ‘fish-out-of-water’ aspect of Nicholas’s arrival in Sandford as the entry point to explore and exploit our expectations about both of the genres they are toying with. At first this means framing Nicholas as the unapproachable and hard-edged action star who is interacting with the bumbling and sweet townsfolk, as when Nicholas is introduced to the Neighborhood Watch. He attends their meeting and grows increasingly aggravated as they talk about “issues” concerning new children born in the town, and the “scourge” of a Living Statue that has cropped up in town. The humor is in the satirical juxtaposition, something that only increases as the underbelly of Sandford is exposed and the movie morphs into a full-on action film with shootouts in the streets and abounding explosions. I will remain vague on details as not to spoil the fabulous twists, but needless to say one does not imagine machine-gun-toting villagers when thinking of the English countryside.
The script Pegg and Wright put together is a masterful blend of topical humor and deep-seated satire. It hardly ever misses an opportunity to mine humor from all its various strands. It is little surprise to me that the minds behind Shaun of the Dead (2004) moved on to such an uproarious and more straightforward comedy; horror and comedy both require an eye to the subversion of expectations. While horror hopes to do this in a way that frightens us, comedy looks to take this reversal of expectation and play it for levity. One theory that explains this is the Incongruity Theory, something first suggested by philosopher James Beattie. He wrote that laughter “seems to arise from the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage.” I believe this operates in a similar manner for horror as it does for comedy, as both the build up to a punchline or comic release and the tension before a jump scare or surprise tap into that same suspension of relief through challenging expectations. We laugh at someone falling down the stairs because it is not how they are supposed to move on stairs, and we scream when someone jumps up onto the stairs to attack someone because stairs are not a place we expect to be in danger. The build up and responses are different in each genre, but the Incongruity of what we expect to see slapped together with what we do see elicits a response, and depending on how the scene is played that can be laughter or terror. Wright and Pegg construct their script in a way that takes full advantage of this approach, using a mix of traditional line-punch-line jokes, physical comedy, and satirical commentary to move between comic registers. In one moment we have Danny asking Nicholas “is it true that there is a place in a man’s head where if you shoot it it will explode?” before moving on to them both crashing through fences to chase down an escaped swan, all before we reach a climactic battle in a supermarket deli. It is all hysterical, and in large part because Pegg and Wright are constantly looking for different ways to go in different directions than we expect.
Pegg and Frost are charged with bringing all of this humor to life, and they both turn in virtuoso comic performances that knowingly channel a whole host of preceding performances. Pegg seems to have pulled the growling blankness of the action hero typified by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1999) into a beautiful unholy marriage with the straight-man humor of Bud Abbott. Frost brings the Lou Costello to the pairing, and uses his character’s obsession with action movies to bring a fan-boy-turns-hero arc to the performance. He is a master of physical comedy, and also manages to become the emotional center of the movie by embodying the struggle of someone who loves their home but slowly realizes that it has a few issues. One of my favorite scenes the two share is when they settle into Danny’s apartment after taking a drunk villager home to sleep it off. Danny discovers that Nicholas has never seen Bad Boys II (2003) or Point Break, and decides he needs to fix that. All the while, the two start a conversation about how Nicholas can’t “turn off” and stop working, something that Danny tells him he needs to change so he can live a happy life. It is funny because this emotional conversation is happening with the backdrop of action movies that are traditionally very uncomfortable with vulnerable masculinity, a fact that also lends the scene a tenderness that is surprising. We are inclined to expect men in action movies to blow things up and smack each other on the back as opposed to slowing down and having a conversation. When conversations like these do happen, they are normally between the man and the expendable female romantic interest, so seeing that transposed onto a heterosexual male bond is surprising in the best ways. The scene blends humor, affection, and bloody good writing to show what’s possible when you spend this much time constructing a narrative to challenge genre expectations.
Hot Fuzz was my first experience with Edgar Wright, and it set off what is now a deep love for his work, with the odd exception, as with Baby Driver (2017). There is a kinetic energy to his filmmaking that is nonetheless quite elegant, something that works greatly in favor of the satire here. He lingers on the bucolic landscapes while also injecting an edge to keep us on our toes. Wright does this, working with editor Chris Dickens, by sprinkling in a number of transitional sequences that are a series of rapid cuts. One shows beer being poured into a pint, cutting to it being passed along the bar to Danny, and cutting to it being put back down empty. It moves us through the drinking without lingering on unnecessary plotting, while also sparking our attention through its rapidity. This concision and eye to effective storytelling serves him particularly well in the third act when all of the foreshadowing and various character and plot developments pay off for an extended series of spot-on jokes. A normal action movie, or really at this point most movies abiding by the mainstream blockbuster mantra, would end with a full tilt ‘final battle’ that focuses on ratcheting up the tension without necessarily keeping an eye for the story. Hot Fuzz has this final battle, but it feels like less of an obligatory motion, and more of a payoff for the friendship that Danny and Nicholas have formed, a validation of Nicholas’ skepticism, and an excuse to have as much fun as possible. It works because Wright takes such care to balance the facets of his movie throughout each act. There are a whole host of people on and off screen doing incredible work, and while the movie is a testament to all of them, I applaud Wright for having the foresight to arrange such a bang-up team and oversee a brilliant production.
What continues to astonish me is that Hot Fuzz achieved that rare plane for satire: it is a movie that effectively intellectually challenges a genre while also finding a way to be a shining example of what the genre it satirizes can be at its best. I find myself thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) in this regard, both being movies that know their genre tropes so inside and out that the creative teams run endless circles around those who have come before. It is this spirit that, in my eyes, makes movies rewatchable. As a viewer you can tell when a filmmaker, writers, cast, and crew have put it the effort to make a complex piece of work, and it feels good to watch something that was made with such regard for the craft and the experience that the audience has with it.