High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Specify Type of Zombie: Hot Fuzz

As some of you may have guessed, I have a high tolerance for bad movies. What you might not have guessed is that I'm insanely picky about certain kinds of movies and just flat out will have no truck with some genres. I'd rather eat bees studded with ground glass than watch any given modern weepy with dying mothers, dying children, or any combination of dying family members (assuming that they are dying slowly and of natural causes), for example. I like to think that stipulation makes a certain amount of sense. In contrast, my twitchy nature regarding comedies on the ground that they're "stupid" seems the tiniest bit intellectually bankrupt when one considers even a small proportion of the number of movies with no redeeming qualities whatsoever that have received relatively favorable reviews in this very forum.

Per SOP, this rambling introduction has nothing to do with the movie about which I intend to talk, which is not stupid at all.

If you haven't seen Shaun of the Dead, you really need to do that right this second. I don't care if you don't like zombie movies. I don't care if you're squeamish about a guy's intestines getting ripped out. You need to see it because it's smart, hilarious, touching, suspenseful, and a little scary. The writers and actors love the genres that they're simultaneously flouting and celebrating.

But when a group of people makes a movie that good (and it really is that good), you of course want them to make another. Sort of. Because what if they can't pull it off again? What if actually having some money screws everything up? (Although we can cross that off the list Hot Fuzz had a majestic $8 million budget, which is about what Michael Bay spends on directorial ball caps.) What if Simon Pegg caught some of that Tom Cruise Crazy on MI:III?

The trailers for Hot Fuzz did a lot to set my mind at ease. Sort of. I mean, yes, they were hilarious. (Horse!) But who trusts a trailer anymore? (Especially when Edgar Wright has just recently demonstrated his M@d Tr@13r 5k1llz.) Also, what's up with Simon Pegg as the uber-competent anti-Shaun? I love my ineffectual, fucked-up loser!

The wait was over for us last Saturday when we met up at River East (despite the best efforts of the CTA and Chicago drivers to keep us from making it) for the 10 PM showing. Because we'd gotten there so late, we were sadly snackless. I volunteered to go grab at least a Diet Coke, and I opted for popcorn as well. Apparently, there was an Alan Tudyk-rich trailer for this while I was gone, and the very minute I stepped back into the theater, there was no Alan Tudyck-yness whatsoever.

Anyway, on to Hot Fuzz, which rocked.

Simon Pegg is Nicholas Angel, a London cop (and music supervisor for the film!) who is nearly robotic in his efficiency, humorlessness, and black-and-white approach to life and the law. Nobody likes an overachiever, so it's not too surprising that Nick seems to have alienated not just his former girlfriend (an uncredited, bemasked Cate Blanchett, and good on her for doing that hilarious scene), but every single cow-orker on the London Police Force (excuse me, Police Service). Tired of being constantly shown up, everyone up and down the chain of command from Angel agrees that it's up and out for him: He's promoted to Sergeant and assigned to the Country village of Sanford.

There, his arrival is met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by everyone except PC Danny Butterman. If Pegg's Shaun-180 was worrying, the fact that Nick Frost seemed to be playing the vaguely-repulsive,-yet-inexplicably-lovable Ed all over again. But damn their eyes, for all that Danny is a giant child (like Ed), an obstacle to getting anything done (like Ed), and an eternal fuck up (like Ed), he's an entirely different character. In part, that's because we get to see what makes Danny tick—a father who coddles him and expects nothing of him, an entire village full of people who know him as Frank's poor, motherless boy, and a stultifying life of sameness from which his closet full of cop movies provides his only escape.

Obviously, it's crucial to a buddy cop movie that the cops eventually become buddies. Hot Fuzz pulls off that little bit of trite more believably than most of the movies it's parodying. Of course Danny is primed to worship Nick, and his endless stream of cop-movie-based questions is not stemmed by Nick's dry, joyless by-the-book, preventive approach to law enforcement. And it's just as obvious that Nick will insist on trying to turn Danny into his brand of a real cop. Danny steps up, Nick loosens up, yadda yadda yadda. As actors, Pegg and Frost build the unlikely relationship slowly, steadily, and believably (although Simon Pegg's relief is palpable when Nick finally ties one on and can let himself crack up at Danny's jokes and antics).

The script is, on the one hand, utterly predictable (as a cop movie must be) and quirky as hell on the other. As writers, Wright and Pegg have enough faith in both actors and audience to build the plot s-l-o-w-l-y, paving the way for the real action with character development and short-term gags even while they lay the groundwork for brilliantly extended gags. They're also confident that their main characters are likable that they're not afraid to let them be right pains in the ass and unintentionally laughable.

Of course Pegg and Frost are the core of the cast, but just as Shaun of the Dead wouldn't have been half the movie it was without its supporting players, Hot Fuzz brings together a strange and brilliant ensemble. Jim Broadbent is so doggedly calm and avuncular that his "reveal" as a becloaked rural fascist is strangely satisfying. Timothy Dalton's mustache twirling and cackling are 100% delightful. It strikes me that this role is for him what The Matador was for Pierce Brosnan. All former Bonds should weather the transition back to the real world so well. (Yeah, Connery, I'm looking at you.)

Sanford is populated with a host of talented, unnervingly polite and perky backstabbers. The Police "Service" was clearly staffed using the handbook of any given cop movie (the antagonistic detective twins, the token girl, the unintelligible has been, etc.), and each one clearly relishes the role. Many of these folks look so familiar that I thought most would be repeat performances from Shaun. As it turns out, only a handful were (two alter egos from Yvonne's gang, Bill Nighy in an all-too-cameo role, and a few unrecognizable zombies). They're recognizable because they're real people and therefore the best comic fodder of all.

But I don't want to give you the idea that Hot Fuzz is some kind of touchy-feely, cozy old pair of sweatpants. It's ridiculous and over-the-top. It's gross and scary. It's got guns and explosions and horses and car chases. There's butchered Shakespeare and squished country journalists, torrid affairs and hidden blood relationships, convoluted motives and multiple fake resolutions followed by even faker denouements.

As a parody, it's the kind of send up of cop movies that only someone who "genuinely likes" Bad Boys II. (And, please, for the love of god can someone please kidnap everyone concerned with Scary Movie, Date Movie, Another Teen Movie, and all those bullshit American wastes of space and Ludovico them in front of Wright's movies?) As an homage, it could only come from someone who calls his beloved BBII "The absolute pinnacle . . . of dumb popcorn flicks." (In the interests of being fair and balanced, I'd also point out to Tarantino and Rodriguez that they could've used more input from Wright on Grindhouse than just his brilliant trailer.)

If I were foolishly forced to choose Shaun or Hot Fuzz as the better of the two movies, the edge would go to Shaun, but I can honestly say that's 99% informed by my preference for zombie movies over cop movies. (Don't be sad, cop movies, I like you, I just don't like, like you the way I like, like shambling, brain-eating zombies.) It's a great comedy, a great silly action movie, and a great follow-up to Shaun of the Dead.

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