There’s nothing worse for a genre filmmaker’s career than to attain geek deification with one’s first picture. While the initial adulation is wonderful, expectations set in as soon as the second movie is announced. Give ‘em enough time, and they’ll start writing the next one themselves – either in their heads or as fan fiction (and typically by transposing everything they loved about the freshman effort). Suddenly, expectations have given way to demands. By the time the sophomore offering shows up (and god forbid if the intervening period exceeds two years), there is tremendous potential for disappointment, even if the movie is good. This is why there have been eighty-seven separate DVD releases in the U.S. for Re-Animator and, to date, zilch for From Beyond.
Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead certainly belongs in the "iconic debut" class of Re-Animator, The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper’s original, you dope). And, considering that it’s been over two years since he entered dozens of phrases into the geek lexicon (along with co-writer/leading man Simon Pegg), Wright’s also eligible for the "Where’ve You Assholes Been with My Entertainment!?!?" club. I belabor this point only because audiences might be thrown when they discover that Hot Fuzz is not simply Shaun of the Dead with excess ammunition. Though this new film is stuffed with references to the mindless American action movies Wright, Pegg and co-lead Nick Frost dearly love, the tone of the piece is surprisingly dour; these guys might’ve set out to make an action movie spoof, but, at some point, they mixed-and-matched genres to a delirious enough degree that they wound up making the world’s funniest giallo. This is a good thing.
Wright opens the film by dispensing with exposition the way most directors do nowadays: he scores it to Adam Ant. It’s here that the viewer learns everything worth learning about the life of Pegg’s stern-faced London police officer, Nicholas Angel, and it’s nothing but an accumulation of skills and commendations; Angel’s life is the force. This is an amusing inconvenience to his superiors (a series of fun cameos from Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy), who can’t possibly keep up with Angel’s astronomic arrest rate; ergo, rather than redouble their efforts, they promote him to sergeant and transfer him to a country village, where his persistence will be someone else’s problem.
Though Angel leaves behind a failed relationship with a crime scene investigator, it’s the action he’ll really miss. Upon arriving in the ominously sleepy Sandford, the restless Angel immediately patrols the town square, ultimately contenting himself with collaring a few underage drinkers and a would-be drunk driver, who winds up being his partner, Danny Butterman (Frost). As Angel settles in, he finds that Sandford isn’t just a peaceful little hamlet; it’s the most peaceful little hamlet in all of England, one in which minor indiscretions – such as underage drinking – are overlooked so as to serve the greater good. The town’s most nettlesome issues? Try an escape-happy swan and a human statue.
Oh, and accidents. When a lecherous regional theater director and his talentless leading lady turn up dead in a grisly traffic accident following a stage tribute to William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (mind the title), Angel correctly suspects murder (Wright erases any doubt by depicting the brutal murders for the viewers’ benefit). But the official explanation is "an accident", which also applies to the next unexpected catastrophe: a gas explosion in the residence of a well-to-do Sandford resident. When a third "accident" does really awful things to the skull of the local newspaper editor/photographer, Angel is motivated to ignore the assurances of Chief Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent) and insist that a serial murderer is afoot.
As for who might be capable of such ghoulish foul play, Sandford does not lack for suspects. And Wright doesn’t shy away from singling out the town supermarket magnate, Simon Skinner (a splendidly diabolical Timothy Dalton), as the most likely culprit. Is this a red herring? Of course it is. Wright and Pegg know their Agatha Christie all too well (they better, since it’s, like, required knowin’ in England), and he meticulously crafts his narrative as a full-bodied whodunit with a whole legion of potential murderers. But it’s the glee with which Wright stages the plentiful murders that nudges the film into the realm of giallo; even when he’s employing a few trademark De Palma flourishes – while heavily referencing Donner’s The Omen (as seen in Spaced) – during the gruesome churchyard dispatching of the photographer, Wright is careful to avoid parody or empty homage. He loves the masked-and-gloved conventions too much to waste them on an easy laugh. This is legitimately sinister business sans quotation marks (in a way, it calls to mind The Frighteners).
It’s easy to underrate what Wright/Pegg/Frost are doing with their genre romps because it’s incredibly difficult to particularize all that they’re doing so effortlessly. And I’m only obsessing over the giallo aspect of Hot Fuzz because I’m shocked that it’s so prevalent: even though the laughs are plentiful, there’s the possibility that audiences might leave the theater more unnerved than giddy. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the troubled world in which Hot Fuzz has been conceived. (Spoiler invisi-texted:) The utopian idyll being murderously maintained in this film is unmistakably a criticism of the protective climate that dogs both the U.S. and Great Britain at present (though only in the latter would a slipshod performance of Shakespeare be worthy of murder). But the seemingly gentle villagers in Hot Fuzz want to keep the world out not because it is too intellectual, but because it is aesthetically displeasing.
For all the surprising thematic challenges Hot Fuzz poses, Wright makes sure to fulfill basic expectations by giving Pegg and Frost plenty of room to bond in the best, nearly homoerotic buddy-cop tradition. Some might argue that the drunken tête-à-tête in Danny’s apartment – consummated by a back-to-back viewing of Point Break and Bad Boys II – drags the homoeroticism to the fore, but I prefer to view whatever it is that exists between Nicholas and Danny as nothing more than a very intense male friendship (even though I’d never screen Bad Boys II for someone I wasn’t trying to fuck). Sure, Danny’s pulling double-duty as the naïve partner and the love interest (apparently, Wright and Pegg wrote a female love interest, but, in the interest of streamlining, handed over the girl’s lines to Danny), but Frost plays him as a complete innocent; he’s only worshipful of Nicholas because he represents the hero cop he’s always wanted to be.
When Danny finally gets to play hero cop in the action-crammed final act, Hot Fuzz goes from commenting on action film conventions to indulging in them without even a whiff of irony, and it’s at this juncture that the movie becomes an unadulterated joy. This is level on which even the most spot-on parodies of Mel Brooks and Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker could never work. By respecting a disreputable genre and infusing it with tropes from seemingly disparate sub-genres, Wright and Pegg have come up with something they can proudly claim as their own – for now, at least. And if "Parodrama" is too clunky, then just call it "ineffable".