The best movies get better each time you watch them. That is why I am now going to praise the 2007 cinematic masterpiece Hot Fuzz.
A couple of nights ago, I saw that the movie was on Netflix. Of course, I promptly rewatched it. You know what? It's not just one of the best comedies of all time, it's one of the best movies of all time. Put it up there with Casablanca and The Godfather. Strong praise, I know!
Directed by Edgar Wright and written by Wright and his longtime leading man/collaborator Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz was released almost eight years ago. It got very positive reviews, and I remember being pretty hyped to see it. I had loved their film Shaun of the Dead, and couldn't wait to see those guys take on the buddy cop genre. I had seen maybe one trailer and was mostly going off of the poster:
If Shaun of the Dead was Dawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz would be Bad Boys II. Makes sense, right? Kinda. But also kinda not.
From the beginning, Hot Fuzz subverts the audience's expectations. It begins not with a bang but with a long shot of Pegg's character Nicholas Angel slowly walking toward the camera. Then comes a montage about what a splendid cop he is.
There are a bunch of fake-outs going on there. Pegg is playing against type — before Hot Fuzz he'd been primarily known as a likable slacker like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead or Tim from Spaced. Here, he was playing a cheerless, uptight civil servant. He's not the sort of devil-may-care renegade popularised by Cop Cinema, he's the straightest arrow on the force. He is so straight, in fact, that the brass at the London Police Department have decided to reassign him to the country and get him out of the way.
Soon, Angel has been relocated to the country town of Sandford. That sets up the second fake-out: Hot Fuzz isn't just a buddy-cop movie, it's a proper Agatha Christie-style mystery. The first time I watched it, I assumed that the colourful populace of Sandford were merely window dressing, a chance for the film to swell its cast with every working British comedian on Earth. (Which it does, of course.)
Sgt. Angel is frustrated by the willingness of the police force to write off a series of increasingly suspicious deaths as "accidents" and begins unravelling a complex real-estate scheme that links the victims. It's a plausible mystery, and it implicates the most obvious villain in the movie — Timothy Dalton's wonderful and dastardly shop-owner Simon Skinner.
Spoiler Warning: I'm about to give away the movie's big twist. So maybe make sure you've watched it and then come back.
Dalton is a red herring that makes the eventual reveal — a " Final ending of Clue" sort of deal where it turns out the entire town is in on it — funnier, particularly because the actual motives for the murders are so absurd. That guy wasn't killed for poaching a land deal, he was killed because his house was an eyesore. That woman wasn't killed in a real-estate scam gone wrong, she simply had an annoying laugh. Skinner is in fact guilty, but so is everyone else.
When you go into Hot Fuzz knowing the twist, everything changes. Rewatching it is almost like watching a different movie, and it's also where the whole "this movie is a masterpiece" thing comes in.
For starters, Hot Fuzz has one of the richest, tightest scripts of any film I've seen. Hot Fuzz is so dense with gags that if you lean over to refill the popcorn bowl, you'll miss four or five of them. Nearly every line of dialogue is either an explicit joke, a set-up to a future joke, or a call-back to a joke that was set up earlier. Some manage to be all three at once. It's like watching an entire season of Arrested Development unfold in two hours.
The self-referential stuff is what sticks out to me each time I rewatch it. That makes sense, since so much of the film plays differently once you know what's really going on. Most fans of the film probably remember the foreshadowing where Angel meets Joyce Cooper, the woman at the inn: She seems to call him a "fascist," revealing after a pregnant pause that that's just a word for the crossword she's working on.
"Hag," Angel appears to call her in response… before pointing to another entry on her crossword.
Much later, when the guns have come out and the two characters are shooting at each other, the insults come back in earnest. "Fascist," Joyce spits, opening fire with a machine gun. Sgt. Angel returns fire, quickly taking her down. "Hag."
There are so many subtle jokes like that that it's difficult to keep track of them all. The first time Angel and his partner Danny enter the neighbourhood shop, he overhears one of the women in the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance on the radio telling the shopkeeper, "That Sergeant Angel's in your shop, check out his arse!" Later, as he rides back into town to lay down the law, he overhears the same woman saying, "That Sergeant Angel's back… check out his horse!"
Lines are delivered rhythmically, mixing quick repetition with snappy edits to keep the viewer off-balance and amused. Characters bounce lines to one another like handball players, and almost every line of dialogue and visual gag is eventually repeated in a different context. "That weren't me." "She tripped and fell on her own shears." "A great bushy beard!" "The greater good." "Pub?" "Yarp."
The rampaging swan is one of the movie's most obvious running gags. See. There's a swan loose in Sandford, and Danny and Angel must apprehend it. They don't catch it on their first outing, so it turns up at key moments throughout the film. The bird plays a crucial role in the final showdown. When Inspector Butterman tries to make his final getaway, it's the swan, not the heroes, that brings him down.
There are more subtle references to the swan threaded through the script. When Angel and Danny return from their first unsuccessful attempt to capture the it, they're suitably embarrassed. "No luck finding them swans, then?" asks woman at the shop. "It's just the one swan, actually," comes Danny's reply.
Later, Angel has abandoned his murder investigation. He and Danny are back in the shop buying Cornettos. That earlier line finally echoes: "No luck finding them killers, then?" asks the clerk. "It's just the one killer, actually," replies Danny. Hearing that, Angel finally has his epiphany — it's not one killer, it's several.
That epiphany sets up what might be my favourite visual gag in the entire movie. Sgt. Angel is eating his Cornetto and stewing over what Danny just said, and he finally puts it all together. He turns to Danny with his mouth covered in ice cream and tells him to punch it. Danny, for some reason, decides to wolf down his Cornetto before hitting the gas.
Every time I see that scene, I laugh. I'm laughing right now, looking at the gif.
As much praise as the script deserves, the movie's visual humour is just as good. The primary visual joke is that Hot Fuzz apes the smash-cuts and hyperactive visuals popularised by Michael Bay — call it "Bayhem," if you want — but uses those techniques to punctuate scenes of extreme mundanity. The disconnect between the editing and camerawork and the actual events on-screen is good for a grin — SMASH CUT TO a cop preparing to do paperwork…. EXTREME CLOSE-UP ON a man watering a plant.
As the story progresses, those jokes get more specific and pronounced. One of my favourites comes after Danny and Angel uncover a cache of weapons at the farm outside town. Among the guns and grenades they find a rusty old sea-mine. They prod it. It begins ticking. They flee the building, which leads to this shot:
It's a perfect recreation of a shot we've seen in a hundred action movies. The camera sweeps out, tracking quickly backwards as the heroes flee a building. The moment the whole building is in the shot…. BOOM, it explodes, propelling them forward and just out of harm's way. The punch line, of course, being that the mine doesn't actually explode. We get that great shot, but none of the payoff.
In its last quarter, Hot Fuzz finally becomes the guns-blazing, full-on Michael Bay parody we were promised. I've always felt a touch let down by this part of the movie, mostly because the script makes a few shortcuts that fall short of the precedent set by everything leading up to them. (Angel immediately convinces the other cops that Inspector Butterman is evil despite the fact that they have mocked him for the entire film, the pacing finally starts to get a bit out of hand, the last five minutes should have been cut.)
The action sequences have so many good gags that I'm willing to forgive a few minor missteps. There's the little stuff, like the fascist/hag joke I mentioned earlier, or the fact that the old guy in the big puffy jacket really was carrying a shotgun under it this entire time.
The grand finale is also loaded with explicit Michael Bay tributes. There's the camera rotating around our heroes…
…the two of them leaping through the air while dual-wielding pistols:
…there's the off-kilter, airborne car that enters from the top of the frame in extreme slow-mo…
…and there's the pull-back shot of the heroes looking up as a helicopter flies into the frame:
One of the biggest criticisms of Michael Bay-style filmmaking is the constant, frantic editing. No shot lasts more than a second, and most are in and out in a fraction of that time. It's one of those things that I've found difficult to unsee; the moment I realised that no Michael Bay action sequence holds a shot, I became unable to focus while watching his movies.
The action in Hot Fuzz goes for something similar, and while it must be said that Edgar Wright and his editor, Chris Dickens, aren't as good at it as Bay and his team, the joke still works, particularly in its more extreme examples. One of my favourite visual gags is actually pretty easy to miss. It's this one:
Dr. Hatcher has Danny and Angel dead to rights. He pumps a round into the chamber of his shotgun… and Wright and Dickens cram an incredible number of quick-cuts into that single quick motion. Check it out in slow-mo:
Eight different camera angles! For an action that takes about one second. It might be the best Michael Bay joke in the whole movie.
Early in the movie, Danny is peppering Sgt. Angel with questions about his action-packed tenure as a London policeman. Has he ever smoked a fool? Has he ever been in a high-speed chase? Has he ever fired his gun up into the air and gone "arrrrrrrr!"
Danny demonstrates what he's talking about — it's a scene from Point Break where Keanu Reeves has a clear shot at Patrick Swayze's bank robber but just can't do it because he and Swayze have become surf bros. Instead, Keanu empties his clip into the air and cries out in frustration.
No, Angel says, he's never done that.
Later, Danny and Angel bond over a drunken, late-night viewing of Point Break and Bad Boys II. We even get to watch them as they watch the scene in question:
So of course, at the end of the movie, Danny finds himself with a clear shot on his evil lunatic father. And just like Keanu, he can't do it:
That's Hot Fuzz. It's a movie so rich that it pulls threads from other movies and weaves them into itself, eventually doubling and even tripling back. Not a second is wasted; every joke eventually ricochets and hits you when you didn't expect it.
It's operating on a different level of sophistication from the films to which it pays tribute, but that tribute is genuine: Hot Fuzz believes in the power of dumb action movies, and it delivers on that belief straight through until the credits roll. It's one of the smartest, funniest, most rewarding movies I've seen. Hot Fuzz is a god damned masterpiece.