Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hot Fuzz

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Britain is generally a bit of a crap place. I speak as a native. Our weather's crap, our government's crap, our television's crap. It's a good job our cinema's had its fair share of high points - Powell & Pressburger, the Ealing films, Hitchcock, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, the Scott brothers - otherwise we'd be down to William Shakespeare, football and the royal family to act as standard bearers of our cultural heritage, and frankly that's way too much for one playwright who's been dead 800 years to shoulder on his own.

And even then I worry about British cinema sometimes. Most of our brightest lights were very quick to make the move Stateside. Those who have stayed tend to a small screen, non-cinematic, people-in-housing-estates-yelling-at-each-other-for-two-hours aesthetic. That, or they disappear up their own fundamental orifices in a welter of pretentiousness. Mentioning no names, Peter Greenaway.

While I'm being decidedly unpatriotic and getting all this off my chest, I may as well offend the middle class critics who have long fawned over them as the leading lights of British cinema and say that I'm not all that keen on the work of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Loach, when he gets the balance between cinema and politics right, can pull off a thunderingly good movie - 'Hidden Agenda' and 'Land and Freedom' are bob on - but most of the time the balance is way off kilter and he's too focussed on making a polemic to make cinema. Mike Leigh I find downright patronising. I'm working class (grandfather: miner; father: truck driver) and I don't recognise Leigh's characters. They have none of the earthy humour, colloquial loquacity and cameraderie that I've seen first hand. Sight & Sound would never publish me for saying this, but it deserves saying: 'The Full Monty' is a more realistic depiction of working class life than anything by Mike Leigh.

All of which is a 300-word way of saying thank God and all His little angels for Edgar Wright. Two films into his career (and I'm gnashing my teeth to think that he's already defected across the pond for his third feature) and he's made two British films, set in recognisably contemporary British locations, full of British actors playing quintessentially British characters, the situations and satirical elements imbued with a distinctly British strand of dry humour ... and both films have been cinematic, pacy, massively entertaining and funny as fuck.

'Shaun of the Dead' was a knowing send-up of George A Romero's undead saga that I can't imagine any other British filmmaker attempting - let alone pulling off. (Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Zombie'? Mike Leigh's 'Happy Go Zombie'? Don't think so!) It also had enough bite that it succeeds as a stand-alone film. With a cast of small screen comedy greats (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davies, Martin Freeman) and an authentic big screen legend (Bill Nighy), a script that juggled the laughs and the gore without missing a beat, and some brilliantly true to life moments (fleeing a horde of flesh-munching zombies? where do you go? shopping mall? military base? course not! pub, innit?), 'Shaun of the Dead' was so assured and accomplished that it seemed like Wright had wrought himself a fucker of a hard act to follow.

Then he went and made 'Hot Fuzz'. The talented bugger.

There are those who hold 'Shaun of the Dead' as the better film, but for me 'Hot Fuzz' is pure comedic genius. Wright and co-writer Pegg basically take the mismatched-partners-tough-talk-car-chases-blow-shit-up buddy movie ethos beloved of Hollywood, shake up all the cliches, and restage the whole thing in a sleepy Home Counties market town. The kind of place where everyone knows everyone else. The kind of place that wins "best kept village" awards. The kind of place that has an amateur dramatics society but no cinema.

Not that this bothers half-arsed copper PC Danny Butterman (Frost). He prefers the pub to the theatre, plus there's his extensive collection of action movies on DVD (his personal faves: 'Point Break' and 'Bad Boys II'). He's delighted when he gets partnered with Nicholas Angel (Pegg), an ambitious Londoner transferred out of the metropolis after the top brass decide that his outstanding arrest record and string of commendations makes everyone else look bad. Danny plagues Nick with endless questions about life in a more action-packed constabulary (for example, "have you ever fired your gun in the air while screaming Aaaaaarrrrgggghhhh?")

Nick finds it hard to share Danny's excitement. His commitment to diligent police work earns reprimands from new boss Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent) and the mockery of Special Branch bods DS Andy Wainwright (Paddy Consodine) and DC Andy Cartwright (Rafe Spall). He finds his duties (wielding a speed camera, officiating at a church fete tombola) banal to the point of humiliating. His biggest case is the disappearance of a local swan.

Then the murders start. Full-blooded, hilariously graphic affairs. Wright lets horror movie imagery sit cheek-by-jowl with cop movie iconography (his double homage to 'Scream' is a treat) and the effect is peerless. The short, zippy scenes and full-tilt editing are matched by the thick-and-fast barrage of in-jokes. The aforementioned 'Point Break' and 'Bad Boys II' get their key moments gleefully sent up; a running joke about one of the am-dram members being an extra in 'Straw Dogs' sets up a pub shoot-out/mantrap decapitation that's absolutely priceless; 'Scream' and 'The Omen' nudge up against each other; a 'Shaun of the Dead' DVD makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo; the leather-jacketed Special Branch types are pure 'Sweeney'; and there's a dash of Sergio Leone in the build-up to a screamingly funny gun battle that plays out like Sam Peckinpah on laughing gas or John Woo meets 'Last of the Summer Wine'.

For all the broad comedy, the best gags are the least obvious: Nicholas Angel's badge number is 777 (in theology often consider the number of God just as 666 is the number of the beast); the only character who refers to him by his number is Simon Skinner, played by former Bond (ie. 007) Timothy Dalton; the shotguns Nicholas and Danny use in the climactic shoot-out are Winchesters (the name of the pub in 'Shaun of the Dead'); identical twin brothers are differentiated by their choice of reading matter: a contemporary novel by Iain Banks and a sci-fi by Iain M. Banks (Banks is one and the same author, who uses the M. to differentiate the types of fiction he writes; the brothers are played by the same actor); the contemporary Banks novel is 'Complicity' - filmed, not entirely successfully, by Gavin Millar - which concerns a series of murders staged ironically according to the misdeeds of the victims, a concept embraced by the conspirators in 'Hot Fuzz'.

The cast is eclectic: in addition to Dalton and Broadbent, Edward Woodward, Billie Whitelaw and Kenneth Cranham do some of their best work in ages, while Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman return in an effective cameos, alongside Steve Coogan. In fact, there's no-one, even in the smallest roles, who strikes a wrong note. Not only does Wright have an ear for dialogue, an eye for the cinematic, and a sense of humour tuned with radar-like effectiveness to the genuinely funny, but he's also a bloody good actors' director. As I may have mentioned before, talented bugger.


Unknown said...

Being an aficionado of action films, I really love HOT FUZZ and how it not only pays homage to many but also makes fun of 'em... sometimes at the same time.

As to your rant about British cinema, what do you think of Danny Boyle? He's kinda become an international filmmaker but doesn't he make or has made quite of a few of his films in England? (i.e. SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER, MILLIONS...) I really dig a lot of his films.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hmmmm ... Danny Boyle. I have mixed feelings about him. 'Shallow Grave' was a sterling debut, and 'Trainspotting' vibrant and hugely entertaining, even if though it added up to little more, I felt, than a stylistic crib sheet from someone who'd watched a whole lot of Scorsese.

'A Life Less Ordinary' was a decent idea, badly executed. I've only seen 'The Beach' once, but it made no impression on me: I can't summon to mind a single scene, image or line of dialogue from it. '28 Days Later' and 'Sunshine' started brilliantly - in fact, reinvigorated often moribund genres - but, for me, both went off the rails in their final reels: '28 Days' became a retread of the shouty military scenes in 'Day of the Dead' (itself my least favourite of the Romero zombie films), while 'Sunshine' squandered a simple awesome premise - the crew of the spacecraft trying to keep the ship itself alive in the sure knowledge that they won't be coming back - and turned into a serial-killer-in-space opus but pretentious with it: as if Tarkovsky had wandered onto the set of 'Event Horizon' and decided to direct a couple of scenes.

'Slumdog Millionaire' I haven't seen purely because of the hype and the accolades. In a couple of years, when I can approach it without such a heavy burden of expectation, I'll watch it.

'Millions', however, I absolutely loved: Boyle's primary-coloured swirls of directorial indulgence were perfectly attuned to his young protagonists' perspectives, and I felt he maintained a decent balance between the humour of the story and the undercurrent of menace.

Skullking said...

But Shaun of the Dead IS better and funnier!