Shaun of the Dead was among my favorite films from 2004, so I was really looking forward to the creative team’s next project, Hot Fuzz.
Part of what made Shaun of the Dead so good is that it worked on many levels. Billed as a romantic zombie comedy, it was good at all three genres. The movie consisted of a string of zombie-movie gags and references, but it also worked as a romance, a horror film, and as social commentary.
On the surface, it may look like Hot Fuzz is comparable to Shaun. But underneath, it’s an inferior film.
Hot Fuzz is a cop movie and a parody of cop movies. The setup is simple and inspired. Sgt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is a London supercop. He is so good at his job that he makes the rest of the force look like donuts. After a while even the most supportive colleagues get fed up with his flawlessness, and his bosses contrive to send him away.
They send him to a quaint little hamlet that has the lowest crime rate in all of England. His first bust is at the local pub, where underage drinkers enjoy wholesome fun. He kicks them out onto the street where, ironically, they can do more damage. But the law is the law, and Angel has no room for gray areas.
He is assigned a partner, Danny (Nick Frost), whose dad, the chief (Jim Broadbent), got him the job. Still, Danny knows everything there is to know about police... movies. The actual police work involves eating cake, stopping at the local grocer’s for ice cream, and knowing all the locals by name.
The movie cruises along at a pleasant, if uneven, clip. There are jokes about small towns, about cops, and about cop movies. All the while, the plot slowly thickens. Local deaths are written off as accidents, and the local investigations inevitably lead nowhere. Sandford may have the lowest crime rate, but it seems to have the most accident-prone citizens in all of England. The soundtrack and editing tell us that Timothy Dalton’s character, a local businessman, is somehow behind it all, whatever “it all” may turn out to be.
Shaun, Come Back! Come Back! Shaun!
Where Shaun of the Dead looked like a string of references and genre jokes, it held together as a movie. The characters had to grow to overcome their troubles. Through it all there was a wonderful social commentary on the attitudes of youth in suburban England. Coming from a group of twentysomethings, the message rang true and clear.
In contrast, Hot Fuzz really is just a string of references and genre jokes, with little more than an average plot to hold it together. The filmmakers have made the case that Angel also has to “grow” to overcome his troubles, but when you’re a supercop whose biggest vice is to not watching enough movies and drinking enough beer with your mates, the message doesn’t resonate.
There was a scene in Hot Fuzz where I thought everything was coming together. It plays near the end; a cop and a villain are fighting in an intricately built toy village. At the surface, the scene worked because of the visual humor of two Godzilla-like figures destroying a hapless little town. The humor was justified by the plot, because the hero was in the heat of a chase, trying to subdue the villain. And there was a rich metaphor that really worked with the rest of the film; excess police violence — even in the name of justice — was destroying a small community, just as Angel’s zealous arrest of the underage drinkers was probably doing more harm than good. Layers of entertainment were working together in service of a underlying theme, just as in Shaun of the Dead. Too bad it was only one scene.
Pick a Card
There are a lot of jokes, some purely visual and tucked in the background. Hot Fuzz is a movie you could watch over and over again, especially with a pause button handy. But to get that quantity, quantity, writers Pegg and Wright allowed themselves to draw from too broad a field. So Hot Fuzz suffers from a lack of focus.
Supercop doesn’t drink. When socially forced into ordering some alcohol, he asks about the wine list. It’s funny and it’s vaguely in character (although why would someone who doesn’t drink know his wines?) But is that really a cop movie cliché?
The revelation about the identity of the villain plays more like Agatha Christie than Jerry Bruckheimer. There are also a couple scenes of gruesome, bloody, gore, played for laughs. That works well when you’re parodying horror films, but cop movies are about the explosions and the guns, not the creative use of gardening shears. (Compare this to Team America: World Police, which got the tone just right).
Let’s Try That Again
I feel a little bad for being so harsh on Hot Fuzz. It’s a movie I really wanted to like, so my expectations may have been too high. There are funny moments, and it’s a blast hanging out with these smart, hip, and in-touch entertainers for two hours. But I know they’re capable of more. (I can’t wait for their BBC sitcom Spaced to become available on DVD).
I am a fan of troupe comedy. For example, even though I haven’t recommended any Broken Lizard movie (Super Troopers, Beerfest), I’ll still line up to see their next one, even if it’s Dukes of Hazzard.
The same goes for Wright, Pegg, and Frost, who don’t seem to have a next project lined up yet (let’s get crackin’, boys!).