Note: Technically, this review is for the UK release of Hot Fuzz. This technicality is meaningless, as both the UK and US cuts are identical. UK Chewers can see Hot Fuzz opening this week. US readers will have to wait until April 20th. We’ll have another review, by one of the other writers, at that time.
Expectations can be a bitch, and not just for filmmakers. Sure, it’s tough to follow up a movie like Shaun of the Dead – a movie that is, in my experience, almost universally loved across age, gender, race and class lines – but it’s even tougher sitting in the seat to watch that follow-up. You have expectations based on the previous work, and based on the advertising for the current film. You’ve built a movie in your head that can’t possibly be topped on screen.
I’m here to raise those expectations a little higher.
Yeah, I said higher. That’s one of the worst things I – all of us who write about movies on the web – tend to do: raise expectations to impossible levels. And no, I won’t compare Hot Fuzz to a sex act or anything, but I will tell you that this movie is every single bit as good as Shaun of the Dead, a movie that I consider, without hesitation, a modern classic. And Hot Fuzz is actually bigger and yet tighter than Shaun – it’s a step forward in every way for the team who made it.
Where Shaun was an honest to God zombie movie with character-based comedy in it, Hot Fuzz is an honest to God British murder mystery gene-spliced with an American buddy cop movie… with character-based comedy in it. The movie, in many ways, is Agatha Christie getting triumphantly buttfucked by Michael Bay (OK, I’ll compare it to a completely absurd sex act). With jokes.
Simon Pegg shakes off Shaun in the first few frames of Hot Fuzz – the opening shot is the longest shot of the movie, and it has Pegg walking down a long lobby towards the camera. He’s Nicholas Angel, London cop, in every way – you won’t be thinking about slackers at all while watching Pegg’s performance.
Angel lives in an action world – car chases and run-ins with stabby Fathers Christmas included – and he’s great at his job. Too good, it turns out. His arrest record is 400% higher than anyone else’s, and he’s making the rest of the department look bad. The solution that the Powers That Be find is to ship him out to the country, where he can work in the least crime-ridden town in Great Britain. If I have any complaints about Hot Fuzz it’s these opening scenes – the basic conceit here is far sillier than the rest of the film, and almost feel like a parody. But co-writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright just need to get supercop Angel out of London, and they wisely move past this section (which has most of the major cameos, including Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy and Steve Coogan) quickly, getting to the heart of the film.
Angel relocates to sleepy Sandford, a countryside town built around an ancient church. The first act is mostly Angel meeting the locals – an impressive cast that includes the likes of Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock from The Omen), former Bond Timothy Dalton, original Wicker Man victim Edward Woodward, Paul Freeman (Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark), Spaced’s landlady Julia Deakin, and many more. Together they make up the local community group, which liases with the police department.
As difficult a time as Angel has getting into the swing of village life (his first night in Sandford he busts half the town for minor infractions like peeing in public), he finds the police department twice as baffling. These cops are never without a dessert near, and they are overseen by the genial and gentle Inspector Frank Butterman, wonderfully played by the great Jim Broadbent. The local team includes Doris, the dirty-minded lady cop, mumbling old timer Karl and the police dog Saxon, and Kevin Eldon as Tony Fisher, the sergeant with a negative attitude. Rafe Spall and Paddy Considine come dangerously close, time and again, to stealing the whole film away from the stars – they play The Andys, two leather jacket wearing, mustachioed and chain-smoking detectives. I would line up for a spin-off with these two in a heartbeat – there’s something about their weird relationship and their schoolyard put downs of Angel (they write “Twat” inside his hat) and Angel’s partner, Danny Butterman (they call him “Cuntstable”) that entranced me. We knew that Considine could be menacing, creepy and dramatic – he can also be incredibly fucking hilarious.
Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman rounds out the crew. He’s the son of the Inspector, and he’s only on the force (or rather the service, as per recent vocab guidelines) because of his dad, and because of his affinity for American cop and action films. If anybody owns this movie, it’s Frost. He plays Danny as a little bit dimwitted but hugely tenderhearted – it sounds like a cliché character, but Frost brings a lot of nuance and humanity to the role. You heard me: nuance and humanity. This character is the polar opposite of Shaun’s Ed, and his enthusiasm and love for Angel make him the most endearing character to appear in any of the Pegg/Wright/Frost oeuvre to date.
I did not use the word love lightly, by the way. While the main story of Hot Fuzz ends up being a murder mystery lurking just below the surface of the seemingly idyllic village, the real heart of the movie is the love story between Angel and Butterman. Every buddy movie has homoerotic tension underlying the central relationship, but Hot Fuzz brings it to the center stage. And sort of does away with the tension and just makes it tenderly romantic. For the homophobes in the audience, no, the characters do not get it on (although there’s one scene where you might think they’re about to) – the love here is more like that Sam/Frodo love from Lord of the Rings. No less a love than the Brokeback Mountain kind, but nobody is spitting on their hands for lube purposes.
The murder mystery takes shape in the second act, as Angel realizes that bucolic Sandford has a shockingly high accidental death rate. A shockingly high accidental gory death rate, to be specific. Edgar Wright shows where his loyalties lie with some very graphic, very great kills. There is one death in particular, which I will not spoil, which I believe will go down in history as the single best kill of 2007. It’s bold to make that statement so early, but I can’t imagine this being topped – and it’s so good you won’t even have a question what death I mean once you’ve seen it. They mystery itself is a fun one, even if shocking you with the solution isn’t what Wright and Pegg were going for in the script.
What they were going for was the third act blow out, a completely glorious running gun battle through the town of Sandford. It is a carnage-laden climax worthy of a Michael Bay or Tony Scott, only it’s in the town square and supermarket of a small British village. Wright hasn’t exactly held back thus far – the film is filled with the trademark rhythmic transitions from Shaun of the Dead – but it’s in the shoot out that he gets to have the most fun, nodding and homaging films and styles while never losing sight of his own story and characters. And in the tradition of the best action films, the movie ends in a thundering mano y mano bout of fisticuffs in the pouring rain. At a location so perfect and hilarious that I cannot reveal it here.
The brilliance of this film in a nutshell is that as a film buff you’ll see this movie on a completely different, deeper level, but even if you didn’t know any of the films that were touchstones for Hot Fuzz you would find a hilarious film filled with wonderful characters and topped with great action. The two films that you need to know the most – Bad Boys II and Point Break –are actually referenced and shown within the film, setting you up for the very explicit homages later. But even without that knowledge, Hot Fuzz works completely.
Part of what makes it work is how the great script. The late, great Mr. Beaks always said that the script for Shaun of the Dead deserved an Oscar nomination for its immaculate structure and style. I’d say the same of Hot Fuzz, except that this time the script is tighter, and the set ups are a little less obvious – which makes the pay offs later on down the line all the more delightful. It’s this style of writing, where Pegg and Wright don’t waste a word and always bring things back to established jokes, concepts and set ups, that give these movies almost infinite rewatchability. I honestly can’t imagine how long it must take them to hone the script into this form, but it’s worth it – while Shaun had a very manageably sized cast of (living) characters, the scope of Hot Fuzz is more ambitious. It would be easy to get lost amid the dozens of characters, but between the expert casting and the script you’re always in good hands.
I don’t want to get into the game of placing a movie I saw in January in a “best of the year” position, but it is hard to imagine seeing another movie that will be half as enjoyable and wonderful as this one. I found that Shaun resonated a little more with me, mostly because I am a die-hard, life-long zombie fan, while I still haven’t even seen Bad Boys II (although good news, Mr. Bay – Misters Wright, Pegg and Frost have convinced me to do a blind buy), so the buddy cop genre isn’t as near and dear to me. But I still sat enthralled with a smile on my face for the whole running time. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I actually considered going back to see the movie again the same day I first saw it. The movie is just that good, and that funny – the message boards of geek sites like ours will be drenched in Hot Fuzz quotes quite soon enough.
And what’s great is that there’s plenty in Hot Fuzz to fuel a hundred quote-offs, and a hundred jokes that are like time bombs, waiting to be detonated on a future viewing. I could write ten pages on some of my favorite gags alone, and I would just be scratching the surface. And it wouldn’t be doing the rest of the film justice – Hot Fuzz isn’t a parody or an absurdist riff, it’s exactly what it’s advertised as – an English murder mystery with an American action sensibility. With jokes. And more than a dash of genius.