FIVE STAR FILM: Hot Fuzz (2007)

Hot Fuzz (UK, 2007)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine

British culture has always been something of a melting pot, incorporating elements from other cultures and turning them into something new. James D. Nicoll once memorably said that the English language "has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." This lack of an original culture - since the Norman conquest, at any rate - tends to produce one of three responses: extreme resentment and xenophobia, invention of a new culture to fill the void (as J. R. R. Tolkien attempted for English mythology with The Lord of the Rings), or the most common route: assimilation of multiple other sources to create something unexpected and unique.
When Edgar Wright came to make Hot Fuzz, he spoke about the fact that Britain lacked a cop movie genre to rival that of the United States. Where Hollywood had given the world Lethal Weapon, Point Break, the Police Academy series and the Naked Gun trilogy, Britain's cinematic relationship with the police has been largely confined to piecemeal efforts like Carry On Sergeant. Britain has always been more in love with the procedural drama or detectives beating the police at their own game, both of which have always made for gripping television. Hot Fuzz redresses this balance quite beautifully, being a fantastic film which succeeds as both a rip-roaring pastiche and a genuine thriller on its own.
One of the issues with classing Hot Fuzz as a parody - as opposed to a pastiche or homage - is the affectionate relationship it has towards its main characters. Simon Pegg himself has claimed that the film is not a spoof, arguing in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that it "lacks the sneer that a lot of parodies have that look down on their source material. Because we're looking up to it.". Where something like Heathers deliberately and consciously tore into what had gone before it, and the Naked Gun films used its premise as a springboard into all manner of goofy shenanigans, Hot Fuzz is a love letter to the genre with a distinctly British twist, simultaneously displaying affection for something and taking the piss out of both the genre and itself.
The film builds on everything that made Shaun of the Dead such an enjoyable watch and refines it, thanks in no small part to the excellent chemistry of Pegg and Nick Frost. In particular, it takes the suburban drudgery and small social landscape of Shaun of the Dead (where zombies serve as the perfect interruption to our lead's repetitive social life) and expands it to lovingly skewer an entire way of life in the West Country. Wright chose to shoot the bulk of the film in his home city of Wells, quipping: "I love it but I also want to trash it." The county has taken the film to heart, holding public screenings in Wells to mark its 10th anniversary last year and voting it the winner of the 'World Cup of Somerset' on Twitter.
One of the greatest tricks that Hot Fuzz manages to pull off lies in its use of rapid editing. Specifically, it manages to employ the language of fast cuts and frenetic action that is part and parcel of modern Hollywood without losing either its unique identity or sight of its subject matter. Where Michael Bay and his derivatives use needlessly rapid editing to hide their lack of substance or attention spans, Wright uses rapid editing to send up the relentless, often idiotic pace of action movies. It's not just that the guns are being trained on pensioners and farmers rather than cowboys or gangsters - it's that the film pokes fun at this shooting style to create a spectacle all of its own.
The film is able to get away with this section towards the end, sending up Lethal Weapon and countless westerns, because of how quintessentially British its set-up and opening section is. Not only is the introduction of Nicholas Angel so wonderfully English - being sent to a rural patch so his colleagues won't be embarrassed by how brilliant he is - but the whole mystery plot is essentially a modern-day riff on The Wicker Man. You could even describe the film as The Wicker Man with jokes - a comparison supported by the presence of Edward Woodward in a delightful supporting role.
Like Robin Hardy's cult classic, Hot Fuzz centres around a lone individual with extremely high standards of right and wrong coming into an isolated(ish) rural community with a dark secret. 'The Greater Good' stands in for the harvest, and the murders of the village folk to secure the Best Village status doubles for the 'pagan' need for a human sacrifice to make the crops grow. Simon Skinner is on one level a riper, more knowingly gleeful version of Christopher Lee's Lord Summerisle, holding the various local groups in his thrall and leaving our heroes shuddering in his wake. Timothy Dalton is really enjoying himself, sending up his period as James Bond with wanton abandon.
Using Hardy's film as a base, Wright proceeds to create a fantastic satire of the sleepiness of English rural life. He looks back to the classic Will Hay comedies of the 1930s, like Oh Mr Porter! and Ask A Policeman, which revolved around extraordinary things happening in the middle of nowhere, and brings them screaming into the 21st century with his own astute observations. Only someone who has grown up in the British countryside could so accurately replicate the often desperate tactics of local journalists (said with a mirror to my own face), the prying, gossipy eyes of the Neighbourhood Watch, the pettiness of the local business community or the unknowingly hammy display by the amateur dramatics society (another mirror to my own face).
Even if the comedy of Hot Fuzz doesn't quite gel with you, it still works perfectly well as a straight thriller. The means of the deaths may be a lot more elaborate than the average episode of Midsomer Murders, but the plot unspools beautifully with Wright leaving subtle clues and punctuating what little exposition is needed with cracking physical gags and the development of the central relationship. By the time the final act comes, in all its explosive and indulgent glory, we are so taken in by the skill that Wright has displayed that we feel he has earned the right to blaze through to the end. The film escalates breathtakingly, giving us glimpses of what is to come (say, in the sea mine sequence) and then rewarding our patience with a climax that doesn't disappoint.
This brings us on to the violence of the film, which picks up where Shaun of the Dead left off in both its prevalence and its philosophy. Both films take after Sam Raimi in their approach to violence, ramping it up to such demented and absurd levels that you can't help but laugh, and paying off a great set-up with something shocking. Seeing Dalton's character impaled on a model church, with the spire going right through his jaw, is not merely a step up from the pool cue sequence from Shaun of the Dead, where a zombie is beaten to death in time to Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now'. It is up there with anything in Evil Dead 2, taking something really shocking and making it shockingly hilarious.
If we were applying Mark Kermode's patented 'five laughs' test here (under which any film which produces five or more laughs is a successful comedy), Hot Fuzz would shoot over the bar within the first half hour. Wright's love of nerd culture and knowledge of the genres he is ribbing means that there is huge attention to detail, with every scene containing multiple gags that reward repeat viewing. The visual touches are every bit as meticulous as those in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and are as English as Aardman at its finest. But the verbal humour is just as good, being built around the eccentricity of the characters, whether it's Bill Bailey's ongoing cameo or David Bradley's incomprehensible, shotgun-wielding farmer.
But what really lifts Hot Fuzz from being a great comedy into a truly brilliant one is the affection we have for the characters. For all their goofing around and ripping off scenes from their favourite films, there is genuine heart in the relationship between Pegg and Frost's characters; you come to understand their frustrations and the shortcomings very naturally. The same goes for Jim Broadbent's character: his villainy is convincing because he's well-written as someone carrying a heavy burden and afraid to let go of the past. By allowing this to unfold in a relatable way, the film avoids either putting the brakes on the comedy to make a point or falling apart in a mawkish way at the end.
Hot Fuzz is a truly terrific British comedy and easily one of the best films of the 2000s. It remains arguably the high watermark of Edgar Wright's career to date, building on everything he achieved in Spaced and Shaun of the Dead through an excellent, original script, a barnstorming ensemble cast and some stylish yet painstaking direction. Eleven years on from its first release, there are few British comedies which can rival it in its perfect balance of heart and massive belly laughs.

For more of my thoughts on The Wicker Man, and other classic British cult films, check out the Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio here.

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