Hot Fuzz: Lethal Weapons in Jolly Old England

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Matt Nettheim / Rogue Pictures

Edgar Wright's new action comedyHot Fuzz.

He's the new supercop in a placid English village. But the local detectives warn Sgt. Nicholas Angel that Sandford is an arsenal waiting to explode.

Detective Andy Wainwright: You do know there are more guns in the country than there are in the city.
Detective Andy Cartwright: Everyone and their mum is packin' round here!
Nicholas: Like who?
Wainwright: Farmers.
Nicholas: Who else?
Cartwright: Farmers' mums.

Here's just the movie for the weekend after the Va. Tech killings: a gun-love comedy about a rural town where, by the end, nearly everyone has been mowed down in a tsunami of bullets. Watching Hot Fuzz at a big screening Thursday night, I laughed along with the audibly delighted crowd of film-industry folk. But I couldn't help wondering whether general audiences would find a bloodbath cop-movie parody an appropriate mechanism of escape from the recent headlines.

We interrupt this rant for a review of the best, surely the smartest, English-language movie of the year to date.

It's Hot Fuzz, written by the English team of Simon Pegg (the movie's star) and Edgar Wright (its director), who did the zombie comedy of manners Shaun of the Dead. That film was a Molotov cocktail of genres: an Anglo-American combustion of romantic Brit comedies like Notting Hill and the U.S. zombie genre so robustly exhumed in Night of the Living Dead. Or, as Wright and Pegg pitched it: "Richard Curtis shot through the head by George Romero."

This time they've got a story about a city policeman exiled to an ostensibly law-abiding Gloucestershire town. Officer Nick Angel (Pegg) is just too good, too tough and righteous for his London superiors. So he's "promoted" to a post in Sandford, where the crime rate is minimal and everyone radiates bonhomie — except for some of Nick's fellow officers, who think the by-the-book cop is too suspicious of local customs. As the avuncular chief (Jim Broadbent) tells him, "You come from a city where there's danger round every corner, and it's driven you round the bend." Nick's only ally is the chief's son Danny (Nick Frost, also from Shaun of the Dead), a Marmaduke-like patrolman whose love of American action films makes him think of Nick as Martin Riggs and Marcus Burnett combined, but with a nicer accent.

Nick, with the gimlet stare and the thin taut lips, is at first flummoxed by this amiable alien element: where the police station has a "swear box" (saying "nob" gets you a 10p fine), where the pub owner vaguely enumerates the wine selections as "red and... white," and where a man who's had his head cut off is described as "decaffeinated." Sanford might be the Shire, and the residents human Hobbits, to an alpha-male Aragorn like Nick.

Then the wrongful death toll mounts, and Nick reluctantly takes on Danny as a junior partner in crime-solving (the snooty detectives call them "Crockett and Tubby"), and Hot Fuzz finally gets as agitated as the movies it's making loving fun of. By the end, Nick has morphed into a double Eastwood: the cop-Clint of Dirty Harry and the Western-Clint (in a three-way shootout) of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Inhabiting the movies-only aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (to whose Grindhouse double feature Wright contributed a funny mock-horror trailer), Wright and Pegg have topped Shaun of the Dead by trans(atlantic)planting a whole gaggle of genres: the English-village comedy, the Wicker Man strain of rural horror, any number of Brit police TV series and its main reference point, the Hollywood action film. But the thing to cherish — and I hope I won't scare you away with this — is how bloody English it is. By which I mean, bloody funny.

Hot Fuzz takes me back to the days of America's rampant Anglophilia — a three-decade stretch from Alec Guinness' Ealing comedies of the immediate postwar era through the rise of Peter Sellers, Beyond the Fringe and the Beatles (whom we saw as essentially a musical comedy team) and culminating in Monty Python's Flying Circus. A lot of American kids got a lot of their sense of humor from these inspired sources; and so, on the evidence, did Wright and Pegg. Shaun of the Dead was shot at Ealing, and takes its skewed vision of English community from the films made their more than a half-century before. Hot Fuzz has much the quirky vibe of Nick Park's stop-motion animated comedies of rural English life. Only this has so much stomach-knotting violence, it's more like Wallace and Vomit.

One big diff between this movie and the Hollywood product it either parodies (the cop-buddy action pics) or resembles (the current wave of Stiller-Ferrell-Vaughn-Wilson-Wilson slob-buddy comedies) is that Wright is an actual filmmaker. His acute sense of visual wit, rich but not assaultive, puts me in mind of Buster Keaton's classic silent farces. To Wright, the movie screen offers a smorgasbord of small, savory gags to be sampled by the attentive viewer; it's not a grapefruit pushed in your face.

Hot Fuzz may have no tropes as elegantly preposterous as the pair of 2-min. tracking shots in which Shaun walks to the local convenience store and back home again while managing to ignore the increasing evidence of zombie activity. But that genre demanded longer takes and a slower pulse; zombies are no sprinters. The new film has to be zazzier, even when nothing much is going on. Hut Fuzz gets many of its laughs the laying on of a Joel Silver hyped-up editing tempo and a macho drum-machine soundtrack to punctuate the interrogation of underage tipplers and the issuing of parking tickets.

I won't itemize the myriad Hollywood references in Hot Fuzz; the exegetes of Internet Movie Database have already done that. I'll just say that, to judge from the citations here, Wright and Pegg's favorite movie auteurs are ... themselves. The film teems with lines and situations from Shaun of the Dead. "What's the matter, Dann — never taken a shortcut before?" says Pegg to Frost before vaulting over some backyard fences; same as in the earlier film. Or, one guy: "You want anything at the shop?" Other guy: "Cornetto." Or, Frost (with inane bravado): "I'll drive." Also, on a quick trip back to London, Nick enters a store where the clerk is a zombie. Apparently the plague from Shaun hasn't quite been eradicated. Or maybe the two films are parallel stories in the same temporal universe. (I'll bet the movie also has jokes from the Wright-Pegg TV series Spaced and other collaborations I haven't seen.)

The great film critic Andrew Sarris once referred to the tendency of filmmakers to quote their own work as "self-reverential cinema." But Wright and Pegg borrow smartly from everyone else; why not from themselves? It thickens the parodic texture, gives a kick to their cultists; and besides, the jokes are funny. If American film-comedy writers have any sense, they'll start stealing from Hot Fuzz.

The 2-hr. running time suggests that Wright and Pegg are just a little more in love with their material than I am. But not much. That's why I'm willing to absolve them of any complicity in the Blacksburg massacre. These guys are from England, where the cops don't carry guns and the murder rate from firearms is minuscule. Their homage-burlesque of America's ultra-violent action epics springs from a movie love as innocent and politically remote as an American kid's fondness for science-fiction films. Film violence for Pegg and Wright is not a mirror of the American psycho psyche but a window to vigorous fantasy. The crimson streets of L.A., as shown in Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys II and many of the other films referenced in Hot Fuzz, are no more real than the corpse-littered saloon after a Western-movie showdown.

That's clear from the affection the filmmakers have for all their actors (an honor roll of film, stage and TV character stars) and their characters, including the baddies. Sure, the movie climaxes in a bloodbath, with all the perps get blown up, run over or impaled. But, and I'm not giving too much away, most of them miraculously — or, rather, very Englishly — survive. After all, in dear old Blighty, people don't die of gun violence.