Have you ever wondered why the crime rate in Sandford is so low, yet the accident rate is so high?
Ah, the plight of the middle child; stuck between the precocious first-born and the youngster who’s allowed to get away with anything. Just so Hot Fuzz, the median sibling in Edgar Wright’s loosely-titled “Cornetto trilogy”, sandwiched between Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End. How to outshine the critical and commercial success of Shaun? How to feel exciting against the artistic abandon of The World’s End?
And yet… perhaps the middle spot, to quote a certain Goldilocks, is “just right” after all.
Hot Fuzz is a genre all of its own, a British buddy-cop comedy soaked in the legends of its televisual predecessors –Regan and Carter, Crockett and Tubbs, Tyler and Hunt – with some American bombast thrown in for good measure. “We wanted to make a cop film,” Wright said, “because there isn’t really any tradition of cop films in the UK.” And so Wright, with his bro-scribe and leading lady Simon Pegg, plunged into two years of extensive research and writing, touring police stations, stealing anecdotes about swans and watching a lot of cop movies. And it shows.
The calling card for Wright’s films have always been that they are not spoofs (“We don’t say spoof … It’s a dirty word”). Shaun was a love letter to George A. Romero, “looking up to [the zombie genre]” rather than down at it, and Hot Fuzz is likewise a rich homage – this time with the added benefit of experience. Shaun really is that precocious first child, bursting with novelty, talent and enthusiasm, allowed a misstep here or there for the benefit of its baby steps. There’s no doubt that Shaun is a masterpiece of a modern debut(ish) – $30 million box office, 8/10 on IMDb, and the ultimate accolade, 92% on Rotten Tomatoes – but, like any first(ish) try, it sometimes lacks the last percentage of “mastery” in “masterpiece.”
Hot Fuzz, by contrast, has a plot as tightly strung as its protagonist, Sergeant Nicholas Angel. Relocated from the Met because his 400% arrest record is making his colleagues look bad, Sergeant Angel stumbles into the idyllic Sandford, a village in Gloucestershire where the most important job of the year is policing the church fete and the crime rate is non-existent. Despite arresting his new partner, Danny Butterman (perennial Wright-Pegg collaborator Nick Frost), for drink driving, they soon form Sandford’s newest crime caper duo. But things in the village are not quite what they seem, and soon Sergeant Angel is investigating a series of grisly “accidents”…
“You wanna be a big cop in a small town? Fuck off up the model village!”
Like a matrix on a BBC detective’s whiteboard, Hot Fuzz maps its separate plot threads into one intricately resolved whole, a plethora of Chekhov’s guns waiting to fire in the final sequence. The search for the killer, and the eventual resolution, takes in every aspect of Sandford life (achingly familiar to anyone who’s grown up in the country) before abruptly telling it all to eff off, coalescing its observations into a (literally) killer final sequence. Even the little details – wordplay over crosswords, an overheard walkie talkie, the aforementioned swan – are pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. In Hot Fuzz there’s a place for every detail, and every detail is in its place.
It’s precision plotting, a pinpoint-accurate narrative designed to fuse flawlessly with Wright’s signature directorial style, all swift swishing cuts and montages. The overall feeling is of Wright editing his work together with a sharp knife, physically cutting the reel; an appropriate image for Hot Fuzz, where blades do most of the hard work in killing off various Sandford villagers. Wright has defined all of his work with such brutally quick edits; fitting, then, that its genesis came in Wright’s first (sort-of) film, Dead Right, a parody (not a spoof) of the Dirty Harry series. Like its descendant the short also featured a fight in a supermarket (note with awe the mirroring of those two opening shots) and the DNA of Hot Fuzz is almost painfully plain, even down to the uber-blond hair of the leading man. The connection is extant enough for Wright to have put the full 41-minute film on the Hot Fuzz DVD. It becomes obvious that Hot Fuzz is not so much moving on from Shaun as it is circling back to the roots of Dead Right; the softness of brains or the weirdness of aliens might be fun, but they’ll never be as harmonious with Wright’s sharp editing as Sergeant Angel’s police work is.
“Point Break or Bad Boys II?”
“Which one do you think I’ll prefer?”
“No, I mean which one do you wanna watch first?”
And yet, it’s not only the director who brings his vision to we, the people. This corps of artistes which had organically evolved in late 20th-century London appeared first in Spaced, a Channel 4 comedy written by Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes and directed by Wright, who was brought on board after they met on the short-lived 1996 comedy Asylum. The next Spaced recruit was Nick Frost: one minute working as a waiter with Simon Pegg’s (ex)girlfriend; then, accidentally an actor. He was the third spoke of Wright and Pegg’s creative wheel, discovered in a Mexican restaurant, and none of them would ever look back. The confidence of that partnership bled through into Shaun, brimming with badinage and the sure-footedness of creative intimacy; yet, the buddy-cop comedy thrusts a duo into the fore by nature, and Pegg and Frost’s two-man show became the camera’s focus (or a three-man show, when you consider Wright was sitting behind it). The double act which had occasionally lost itself inside the ensemble cast of Shaun breathed easily in the followup, a central spool for all those delicious gossamer plot threads to wind around.
“Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?”
“Have you ever fired one gun whilst jumping through the air?”
“Ever been in a high-speed pursuit?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Have you ever fired a gun whilst in a high speed pursuit?”
An anchor, then, a focus; but Frost and Pegg did not find themselves the only stars. Hot Fuzz is a cup overfloweth of golden acting oldies, our grandparents’ generation of heroes and heroines turned into swearing, murdering old busy-bodies. Playing with the tropes of an ageing population is certainly a large percentage of the genius on display (indeed, even Wright himself acknowledged on the Adam Buxton podcast that Hot Fuzz‘s generational divide has become scarily relevant to Brexit Britain) and allowed Wright to proposition the beasts of his favourite genres; Billie Whitelaw (The Omen), Ed Woodward (The Wicker Man), and 007 himself, Timothy Dalton, in what is surely the best comedic performance from a Bond since Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me.
The cast reads like a BAFTA guestlist: Broadbent, Colman, Considine, Spall, Freeman, Nighy, Coogan, Reid, Cranham, Threlfal, Bradley, Merchant, Lowe (yes, Alice, in her film debut) and even Cate bloody Blanchett in an uncredited role as Sergeant Angel’s ex, Janine. They’re not gimmicks, either; Wright deploys each national treasure with care, curating what must be the most 1960s-heyday-soaked 121 minutes of screen time in existence.
“Well, I wouldn’t argue that it wasn’t a no-holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride. But there is no way you can perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork.”
In the figurative paperwork of this exercise, Hot Fuzz checks every box. A refined and improved specimen building on earlier work? Tick. A standalone in the genre? Tick. A meticulously plotted story in which no detail is too small and no narrative stone unturned? Tick. A smorgasbord of British talent, old and new? Tick. And really, really bloody funny? Tick tick tick. If one were a police officer analysing all the evidence, it would be difficult to argue against the notion that Hot Fuzz is the peak of Edgar Wright’s ever-expanding oeuvre. Now make sure you write that in your notebook.