I’ve given modern comedy a hard time recently. It’s only because I love comedy so much that I get so offended when I think a film maker is being lazy. And to my mind, that is what a lot of modern comedy films are. They’re lazy, not using utilising the scope of what film can achieve when crafting their jokes. This is why I love Edgar Wright’s 2007 film Hot Fuzz. Rather than discussing Hot Fuzz with a specific aspect of the film in mind, I want to use it as an example of how to do basically everything right. Spoiler warning for the film: If you haven’t seen it, do so and come back to me. Spoiler warning for the review: I am going to be preposterously snide throughout. You have been warned.
The story is that Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is the most efficient, dutiful and technically gifted police officer in the Metropolitan Police. He’s been making everyone else look bad so he’s transferred to the “model village” of Sandford. Immediately taken aback by the happy-go-lucky attitudes of the villagers and his fellow officers, Nicholas is having a hard to adjust to country life after the much rougher London. A prominent part of this is Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) who dreams of car chases, shootouts, and being a “real” police officer, all the things that had characterised Nicholas’s career up to this point. Bored by the seemingly mundane goings on in the village, Angel carries out his duties regardless. That is until fatal “accidents” start occurring with surprising regularity. Nicholas raises a suspicious eyebrow and tries to convince everyone around him to do the same, which they don’t. So entirely off his own steam he discovers that a murderous cult lead by the malevolent Neighbourhood Watch Association has been behind all the deaths, killing anyone who might stop Sandford winning village of the year. With Danny at his side he must take them down and save the village.
Right out of the gate, what makes this film the gold standard for cinematic comedy is its use of the full range of cinematic techniques. Unlike most modern comedy films which rely only on dialogue, Wright packs this story with absurd occurrences, subversions of traditional action movie one-liners, overly dramatic lighting and sound cues and lightning fast editing. The cinematography serves as the glue holding it all together, exploiting the relationship between what’s in the frame and what’s not in the frame, the layered action within the shots and solid blocking to allow jokes to reach their full potential. You don’t know where the next joke is coming from, making the film automatically engaging in stark contrast to the monotonous drone of awkward improv that I’ve seen in the past month. Because of how meticulously crafted the jokes are there is little room for improv but this enables the actors to express themselves in a contained and focussed environment rather than flop around aimlessly. Edgar Wright brings this to every film he directs/ writes and if you want a crash course in his film making as a whole with some visual aids, I’d suggest watching this .
This is made all the more satisfying by Wright’s grounding each of these endlessly inventive jokes squarely within the characters and situations of the film. Isn’t that just swell? The fact that Edgar Wright actually sat down and said to himself “How can I give these jokes weight and meaning?” and arrived at the conclusion that he should create a variety of well-defined characters to perform them. That’s just fucking inspired, isn’t it? But back on point with an example. As we’ve stated before, Frost’s Danny dreams of being a “real” police officer that he’s seen in films and sees Nicholas Angel as that ideal. Angel sees things much more realistically, trying to tell Danny that police work is about the little things and paperwork. This conflict of perspective is reflected in each and every joke between these two characters, with a scene in which they are on speed camera duty providing arguably the best example. Nicholas leaves Danny a little bit deflated before a car speeds past. Angel literally says “let’s roll” and a two frame car chase ensues, ending abruptly. Danny just looks over at Nicholas like a child at Christmas and says “That. Was. Brilliant”. A good joke given weight and complexity by its relationship to the characters and theme.
Speaking of which, the central theme of the film is fiction versus reality and it’s important to discuss theme because of its relationship to the rest of the film. In modern comedy, the theme is discussed in isolation from the comedy, but in Hot Fuzz it’s an extension of the characters and therefore is constantly being discussed through the comedy. Danny’s action movie fantasy against Nicholas’s shit and paperwork reality is a conflict that extends to the rest of Sandford but is turned on its head. On the surface, Sandford is the carefully crafted image of peaceful rural perfection but the reality is that it’s been made so by a murderous cult wanting to maintain its status as the model village. While Nicholas is investigating this, Danny, just like everyone else, is more attracted to the mundane fiction rather than the fantastical filmic reality Nicholas is proposing. This criss-cross of ideological positions allows the film to reach the middle ground of Dirty Harry style ass kicking but with a tremendous amount of paperwork accompanying it. Not only does this enable the film to conclude the arcs of the two central characters (Danny simultaneously becoming a police officer while living out his adolescent fantasies and Nicholas learning to loosen up a bit without completely abandoning his love for procedure) but it also allows them to pull off the thing that grates on my tits the most in modern comedies: the action movie climax.
The climax takes the form of heroes-clear-out-the-bad-guys but significantly it doesn’t forget it’s genre because all the action is intrinsically linked to the comedy. From the inherently absurd visual of a middle-aged woman dual wielding pistols on a bicycle, the subversion of action film tropes and a litany of call-back jokes (seriously Hot Fuzz is the master of the call-back joke) the action is so grounded and comedy that you constantly switch between fist-pumpingly awesome and rib-crushingly hilarious. Throwaway lines and jokes from throughout the film are repeated and re-contextualised in a heroic shootout setting giving them new life and another layer of hilarity. Subtle and silly at the same time. Magnificent. I can’t even be snide about how badly modern comedies do it because I am so happy that Hot Fuzz exists to show us the way.
I could talk for days about how good Hot Fuzz is but I feel I would start to lose you by the 42,000th paragraph so I’ll wrap things up. Suffice to say, Hot Fuzz is great because of its clarity of vision, inventiveness and passion for the art of comedy. That’s it, I’ve addressed every criticism I have of modern comedy. Didn’t miss one. What’s that? Where’s the section on how its pop culture references to action film history are hilarious because of the way they are contextualised by the film’s thematic discussion and don’t just sit in the middle of the film like a dog turd on a rug? Here.
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