Pure comedies don’t take much home come awards season. This makes sense if you’re talking about the factory line of studio comedies, but in the case of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, it’s an outrage. No comedy this century has shown such a mastery of what can be achieved on the big screen, and few “serious” rivals have either. Hot Fuzz is a work of art that couldn’t exist in any other medium, and that’s what makes it a modern masterpiece. Its foundation as a parody of action films ties it to the big screen, but more than anything Wright’s personal style involves using specific editing, cinematography, composition, choreography and sound design to tell the story. Wright’s command of film is at least as impressive as any dramatic director and in many cases more inventive.
Wright’s style is brilliantly explored in this video essay from Every Frame a Painting (EFP). Wright uses jump cuts, camera movement, choreography, and match cuts to create visual comedy. EFP highlights how unique Wright is in doing this, pointing out that most comedies nowadays rely on dialogue or physical gags and little else to create humour. Of course these films are still hilarious, but they hardly harness the medium’s potential. In any other genre Wright might have got some critical recognition for his inventiveness, but comedies are still ignored in comparison to more “highbrow” rivals. But EFP’s point can be taken much further: Wright doesn’t only use film techniques to make his films funny, he also uses them to progress the plot and create his cinematic worlds.
Hot Fuzz’s opening sequence is a great example of Wright’s genius: taken at face value it seems like a straightforward introduction to protagonist Nicholas Angel, but – crucially – it also sets up the tone and world of the film via Wright’s directorial choices. What would change if the film started instead with Angel being told he was being transferred to the country? We would learn that he is an exceptional cop, because the Chief Inspector says so, which is basically all the plot information gleaned from the opening montage. However, what would be missing without that montage is the fleshing-out of the film’s world. Watching the sequence of Angel’s exaggerated overachievement prompts the audience to suspend a degree of disbelief – this is a world in which someone as hyperbolic as Angel can exist. It also introduces Wright’s mode of storytelling: those famous cuts and camera movements. In this way, Wright really distinguishes himself as a director, in much the same way as, say, Tarantino or Scorsese – the only difference being that Wright is purely dealing in comedy.
What has always been apparent to me when watching Hot Fuzz is the level of thought and planning that clearly went into it. It is not an effortless film; the plot is intricately woven, and the shots meticulously choreographed. This planning is vital for the film’s visual gags, like when we meet Angel’s ex-girlfriend Janine at the crime scene she is examining:
The attention to detail is also what gives the film its energy; by repeating camera movements in different shots, Wright creates different visual connections. This gives Wright the material he needs for his fast-cut mini-montages, as well as helping the audience to connect two scenes or shots, for example when Angel recognises that the two brothers who drive the tow truck also work at the supermarket. The repetition of the brothers’ knowing nod to Angel causes the audience to register an important connection, in the same way that Angel discerns a clue to the town’s mystery.
The most vital part of the planning is of course the script itself, and Hot Fuzz‘s script is brilliant. Though Hot Fuzz doesn’t necessarily have the decodable clues of an Agatha Christie novel, co-writers Wright and Simon Pegg needed to make sure their film would have a cohesive logic to it, especially enough to support Angel’s false accusation that Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton) was the murderer at the close of the second act. For this reason, Pegg and Wright plant a lot of threads throughout the story. Sometimes these are visual, like the brothers’ nod; other times they are in the dialogue – my favourite example being “Any luck catching them swans then?”. While at first this seems like a throwaway line to add a bit of background colour, it’s what eventually makes Angel realise that there is more than one killer. The later version of “any luck catching them killers then?” wouldn’t stick in our minds without it, revealing in the most subtle of ways that Angel might need to think about the case from a different angle.
In this video, Wright and Pegg present their script plan for the film. The level of detail they had written in at this stage, before the completion of a first draft, is an insight into how they made such a successful movie. As you’d expect, they’ve already worked out large details like the main murders in the film, but there’s also impressive attention to fine details like where the members of the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance will be shooting from in their “last stand”. In a comedy landscape which was ruled in 2007 by sprawling improvisational comedies (and arguably still is), Hot Fuzz is remarkable precisely because of its precision-engineered brilliance. It’s a rare comedy where every shot, every line and every prop are crucial to both the plot and the laughs. If you’re looking for an heir to the gag-packed genius of Airplane! it’s standing right here.
Nevertheless, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that somehow comedy is easy, and therefore can never equal or beat a dramatic film come awards season. Hot Fuzz is a film that deserves the same respect as any of the Best Picture nominees at the 2007 Oscars; both Hot Fuzz and nominee There Will Be Blood have 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men is just a couple of notches higher. The Oscars’ problem with fair representation might be more serious but their lack of respect for comedy is no laughing matter. People often have a giggle when I say Edgar Wright’s opus is my favourite film, but there is little else around that can match it for directorial skill, brilliant writing and pure comedy value. It might not be as “worthy” as some of the Oscar-winning films from this era, but it’s easily the most entertaining. Why should that make it anything less than a masterpiece?