Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hot Fuzz

This past week, Mrs. Speculator and I decided to catch a movie. There were an astonishing range of choices, especially as we are rushing up to Memorial Day and the beginning of the summer movie season. But we both had been intrigued with the notion of Hot Fuzz, from the creators of Shaun of the Dead, and decided it would be our goal for the afternoon.

Some back story is in order. When the future Mrs. Speculator moved in with me, I tried to get her hooked on anything Joss Whedon. We watched some episodes of Firefly together, and she allowed as how she might be mistaken about its worthiness (she thought it had none until we watched it together in order). So, when she and I went to San Diego Comic-con a few years ago, we decided to go to the Serenity panel. We also knew it was going to be packed, so we decided to go to the panel before it in order to get a seat. That panel was Simon Pegg talking about Shaun of the Dead, and during the course of that hour, the movie we had no real interest in became something we really had to see. One of our touchstones with our friends is how much they enjoyed that movie.

Ironically, in our conversations about the Planet Terror half of Grindhouse, the quality and art of Shaun of Dead surfaced again and again as an example of how an homage should really work. And so, when she realized that Hot Fuzz was from the same group of people, it was on the list of films that we had to see.

And, here’s the review—you should see it too. There’s no question that its creators know and love the action movie genre. But their love for that kind of movie does not permit them to make just another in the near-endless train of them. Hot Fuzz takes some time to establish its credentials as the creation of true fans of the genre, then sets off on its own to imitate and poke fun at its most ridiculous conventions. And because of the breadth and depth of their knowledge, their barbs are dead on at every turn.

Nicholas Angel is a dedicated and decorated London officer whose astonishing law enforcement skills are embarrassing his commanders since no one can keep up with his prodigious pace. So those same commanders transfer him to the sleepy village of Sandford, where nothing ever really seems to happen outside of the escape of the village mascot, a swan. And before you can say Bad Boys 2, Angel is bored with the idyllic and pastoral life, as well as stunned by his co-workers’ complacency in the face of what he is certain is not so much a string of horrific accidents but a series of murders. But as all the important citizens of Sandford, including his boss, tell him repeatedly, there aren’t any murders in Sandford. In fact, it regularly wins “village of the year”; how can there be murders in the village of the year?

Unlike the way he is portrayed in the commercials, Angel is not so much gung-ho as he is terribly efficient at his job. He loses his girlfriend because she thinks he cannot turn the job off, which if you think about it some is actually a quality most people would like to see in their law enforcement. But he is essentially a good man. His foil in Hot Fuzz, Danny, is played by his cohort from Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, Nick Frost. It’s obvious these two have spent many hours acting together, and their relationship both on the job and off doesn’t feel nearly so forced as the buddy movies their scenes together play up. And their interaction constantly points out the bizarre relationships those buddies have in those movies. Without much twisting, most of Danny’s lines to Angel can be read as expressing something more than camaraderie and fellow-feeling for people working in the same dangerous line. But Hot Fuzz also doesn’t beat you over the head with these lines. It is a British movie after all, so when the humor is not over the top (and it does get there in the action sequences), the wit is incredibly dry and usually verbal.

The last third of the film is in fact a long action sequence, with jump cuts and flying bodies and hard-driving techno soundtrack. But the throttle is fully open for the homage to send up what I’m sure is scene after scene from movies I have never seen. A constant reference is made to a scene from Point Break including Danny playing it for Angel as he says that he’s sure that’s what it really means to be a cop. So of course, eventually the scene is replayed with Danny in the starring role, and despite its heavy-handed foreshadowing, it is still laugh-out-loud funny. I chose to read this as a winking reference to the scenes in those action movies, where you know a certain scene is going to happen and it usually comes off pretty clunky. Hot Fuzz is that good a film; it takes the clunky and makes it funny.

Not since Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero has there been a movie so well versed in the action genre and so able to make fun of it…while still producing a fine film in its own right. And The Last Action Hero makes a nice touchstone for Hot Fuzz; given the differences in comedy in the US and UK; both films have the right blend of homage and action, and both of them have laugh out loud scenes. But they come from different traditions—The Last Action Hero is American and so has to eventually play the comedy and action over the top, while Hot Fuzz is British and more cerebral in its picking at its antecedents. And while there is violence, the pay-off is not in the gory destruction of world-threatening malefactors, but in the ridiculous come-uppance of misguided do-gooders.

Pegg and co-writer Edgar Wright hit the right notes over and over again. I'm sure that as an American watching a British movie, I'm missing some of the in-jokes, but ultimately, that just doesn't matter. Both for its wry observations of what is traditionally an American genre and for its own merits, Hot Fuzz is a movie even moderate fans of action movies should take the effort to see.

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