Hot Fuzz (United Kingdom, 2007)
It has been remarked by more than one critic that the action comedy can be one of the easiest movies to make poorly and one of the most difficult to make effectively. The problem is evident: comedy and action often war with one another, each trying to steal the spotlight at the expense of the other. If there's too much humor or the jokes are too fatuous, the action feels extraneous. And if the film is slanted toward action, the comedy can feel out of place and, if poorly executed, can kill the momentum. The team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the guys who combined guffaws and gore in Shaun of the Dead, have elected to follow their offbeat zombie farce with an action comedy. Considering their earlier success, it is perhaps unsurprising that they have gotten it mostly right. Hot Fuzz is a little too long and suffers from a sagging midsection when the level of exposition becomes laborious, but the spectacularly entertaining final 30 minutes compensates for a lot of flaws.
One key element that Wright and Pegg nail is to develop characters we care about and situations that, while not breathtakingly compelling, are at least interesting. While there have been plenty of exceptions throughout the years (48 Hours, True Lies, and so forth…), the generic action comedy cannot boast either quality. Often, action scenes are just flashy ways to pad out things between the jokes and the protagonists are thinly drawn caricatures. Given the backing of someone with money, it's easy enough to make those soulless, by-the-numbers comedies and we see a few every year. Attempting and succeeding at something more ambitious is the mark of an interesting filmmaker. In the end, Hot Fuzz does for the action comedy what Shaun of the Dead did for the horror comedy.
Sergeat Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is the ultimate cop. He's so good that his superiors in London have him transferred to the tiny burb of Sandford because his superlative record is making his co-workers look bad. He arrives in the village and immediately begins applying the letter of the law to every circumstance. Angel's laid-back superior, Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), encourages the newcomer to relax and partners him with his bumbling son, Danny (Nick Frost). Danny is enthused but naïve and bombards Angel with questions about his big-city police exploits. Has he ever fired guns in both hands? Has he ever fired a gun while leaping through the air? Has he ever fired a gun while involved in a high speed pursuit? Police work in Sandford is comprised of momentous events like chasing down a missing swan or rebuking a man illegally clipping a neighbor's hedges, but a sudden rash of deaths gives the police something new to investigate. Everyone assumes they're accidents except Angel, who believes they are murders orchestrated by the Machiavellian Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton), who owns the local grocery store and is scheming to increase the scope of his empire.
Hot Fuzz relies so heavily on character and plot development that it takes an overlong 90 minutes before things start getting outrageous. That's not to say the setup is without merit, but the humor during these sequences is more restrained than what comes later. There are plenty of subtle jabs, visual gags, and a few high profile cameos (Cate Blanchett, Peter Jackson, Bill Nighy). The wink-wink-nudge-nudge "buddy" relationship between partners Angel and Danny is developed in such a way that it mimics the formula of a romantic liaison without ever straying beyond the platonic. This is part of the parody. These two never whisper sweet nothings or engage in anything that might disturb homophobes, but they fall asleep on the couch next to each other after watching movies on TV and Angel later buys flowers for Danny. The movie has fun toying with this dynamic.
Then, 30 minutes before the film winds down, all hell breaks loose. The filmmakers pull out the stops and satirize every imaginable cliché of the genre, throwing in visual references to dozens of contemporary cop movies. John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood collide in a hail of gunfire as the fuzz go in, guns blazing, to reclaim the grocery store and the town from the nefarious do-badders who have taken possession of it. And just because this is a comedy doesn't mean Wright shies from gore. The impaling of one character is shown in the most graphic manner possible. There are no sacred cows, either. Priests blaspheme and an old woman gets kicked in the face.
Pegg is note-perfect as the tough cop who begins to show signs of humanity before donning the dark glasses and arming himself with more ammo than Rambo. Nick Frost couldn't be better cast as the wimpy sidekick who grows a backbone under Angel's tutelage. Jim Broadbent brings a genial, paternal quality to his role as Inspector Butterman, and there's a great scene in which he snaps into focus and takes charge. Timothy Dalton's villain will remind viewers more of his role in The Rocketeer than his short tour-of-duty as the world's most famous superspy.
Hot Fuzz is the second police satire to arrive in theaters this year and it is vastly superior to Reno 911. That earlier film is an example of what happens when a movie uses lame material to tie together an uneven string of jokes. Hot Fuzz has a higher agenda, and it shows. This movie wants to tickle the funny bone while telling a story that's worth telling. For the most part, Wright achieves this aim. A slightly trimmed down Hot Fuzz might have provided a more heady brew, but even with a little more fat than is necessary, this one offers enjoyable fare with more than one masterful course.
Hot Fuzz (United Kingdom, 2007)
Cast: Simon Pegg, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Nick Frost
Screenplay: Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright
Cinematography: Jess Hall
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: Rogue Pictures