Because the teasing genre-homage Hot Fuzz comes from the English trio responsible for 2004’s teasing genre-homage Shaun of the Dead—each was directed by Edgar Wright from a script by Wright and Simon Pegg, who stars with Nick Frost—it is expected to cut a similar figure on the American movie scene. That’s a mixed blessing: Some genre geeks may fault the latter film as a formulaic reiteration of its predecessor, while others surely will sniff that it’s not at all similar enough. Good thing everyone else can just enjoy Hot Fuzz’s ample hilarity.
True, its release lacks that perfect zeitgeist-attuned timing of Shaun of the Dead, which seemed at once to ask, “Say, what’s with all the renewed interest in zombie movies lately?” and to supply its own answer, “Well, they are great fun, aren’t they? Cheers.” Mundane cop-centric action flicks don’t exactly demand a similar investigation, but that’s what liberates Hot Fuzz to gorge on their conventions and send them up with such fond abandon.
Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a Type-A London supercop with an arrest record so good that it shames his dallying superiors into banishing him to a sleepy suburb. “They’ve won village of the year I don’t know how many times!” he’s told, and it is no consolation. Off Angel goes to bucolic, crime-deprived Sandford, where he promptly gets to work, rounding up all the minors in the local pub (pretty much the entire clientele), plus a tubby drunk driver whom he later discovers to be his new partner, Danny Butterman (Frost).
As it happens, Danny’s father (Jim Broadbent) is the precinct’s chief inspector, who presides over the rest of his disconcertingly docile police force like a grandfather at a third-grader’s birthday party, passing out cake and low expectations. Most of the cops consider Angel’s duty obsession ridiculous, but Danny has the glint of admiration in his eye. What’s more, as an aficionado of too many macho American cop movies, he hopes the city-hardened sergeant might offer him an initiation. “Is it true that there is a place in a man’s head that if you shoot it, it will blow up?” Danny asks. Or, “Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” Angel bears up with stoic incredulity.
Grudgingly, he gets to know the Sandford status quo. There’s something funny—both ha-ha and strange—about the neighborhood-watch group, and also about that manager of the local supermarket (Timothy Dalton), who projects an air of wicked glee by literally twirling his moustache. But none of it makes for particularly fulfilling police work. At least, that is, until a series of extraordinary deaths rouses Angel’s suspicion that a murder spree is afoot. With Danny’s help, mostly through moral support via a double feature of Point Break and Bad Boys II, he investigates. It’s Agatha Christie on speed.
Or maybe ecstasy? Familiar co-stars since the late ’90s Britcom Spaced (also directed by Wright), Pegg and Frost have honed their chemistry finely. Here it’s a delight to see how well they articulate the English intuition about solemnity as a kind of high absurdity; Pegg affects a tone just archly grave enough for Frost’s boyish buffoonery to properly foil him.
Anyway, before long, their customary village of the year has collapsed into violence, and both partners have achieved a sense of purpose: They’re locking, loading and trading one-liners as pungent as year-old Stilton. That’s the joke, obviously, and the filmmakers earn laughs through many gestures of self-effacing good will. Their fondness for American movies and TV is gluttonous and omnivorous but not self-congratulating—references as diverse as Chinatown and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe sneak into the punchy dialogue unexpectedly, leaving the delight intact. Wright, who also made the funniest of the fake trailers in Grindhouse, revels in hackneyed movie tropes, and he and editor Chris Dickens also productively indulge the occasional swift, sudden, testosterone-infused montage. But even the most mockingly spastic action scenes always make room for diligent efforts at the comedy of wordplay.
Hot Fuzz didn’t have to be an instant classic on the order of Shaun of the Dead. It just had to not be a sophomore slump. The movie’s not always hilarious, and it is too long—a self-consciously protracted ending is still a protracted ending—but it makes a fine contribution to English-American mutual amusement. Next to Ricky Gervais’ cable-network comedies of self-mortification, the Wright-Pegg-Frost mode of disarmingly dorky badassery is the best thing going. Who knows how long it’ll last, but who cares?