Nick Frost and Simon Pegg
Nick Frost and Simon Pegg
The English have a wellspring of humor that can never be exhausted: It's the combination of bestial urges and good manners. The Ealing black comedies with Alec Guinness dramatized the schism lovingly. The Monty Python lads devised more raucous sketches, implying the problem was mental defectiveness born of inbreeding, and in movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they blended English deadpan with the lopping-off of limbs.
In 2004, the team of director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg took the lunatic disjunction to the next level: In Shaun of the Dead, they fused middle-class English suburban angst with zombie carnage. Some critics dubbed the film a spoof of horror movies, which didn't do it justice. Wright and Pegg aimed higher, using zombies to spoof the English capacity for blotting out the bloody obvious. I especially relished the hero's meek mother, who neglects to tell her son about being bitten by a contagious ghoul until she's about to transform into a ferocious zombie cannibal. "I didn't want to be a bother," she says.
Now, Wright and Pegg have collaborated on Hot Fuzz, which is nearly as good as Shaun of the Dead — and which probably seems more accessible to people who don't, like me, see every zombie-cannibal flick as a matter of course. Here the joke is that a quaint old English hamlet — you know the sort, with the clucking flower-shop lady, the hearty vicar, and all sorts of elderly busybodies — is the setting for a splattery, over-the-top, overbudgeted Hollywood buddy action picture.
The hero, once again played by Pegg, is Angel, a humorless, by-the-book city cop who's been bounced out of London for making too many arrests and making the rest of the force look bad. He ends up in tidy Sandford, a finalist for the title of England's most picturesque village, where he's forced to sit clocking passing automobiles with the pudgy constable Danny Butterman (played by Pegg's frequent collaborator Nick Frost).
It's rather sweet, the way Danny dreams of being like Keanu Reeves in Point Break, yet seems blind to the conspiracy breaking under his nose — a conspiracy manifest in a series of really gross beheadings, squashings, and impalings that his doddering police-chief dad, played by Jim Broadbent, shrugs off as "accidents." But Angel doesn't buy the accident theory: Something about this town is too pretty, too polite, too orderly.
Hot Fuzz is great fun, and it's nice to see all the old English character actors who aren't busy in Harry Potter films— Broadbent, Billie Whitelaw, Anne Reid, and Edward Woodward. Timothy Dalton, that one-time James Bond, is splendidly unctuous as a local grocery-store magnate, and there are lots of surprise cameos.
Better than that, the movie's not just a string of gags. If Shaun of the Dead was at heart the archetypal story of a child-man who finds the courage to grow up — to take responsibility for his life, commit to a woman, and make peace at last with his mother, whose head he also has to blow off with a shotgun — Hot Fuzz is a story of small-town English repression and the tradition of heroic American individualism that lays waste to it.
The climax is everything you could hope for. As in Shaun of the Dead, the mayhem is shockingly graphic, which helps to keep the slapstick from getting too campy-comfy. It lampoons that ultimate overblown Jerry Bruckheimer picture, Bad Boys II, while still delivering the goods: a brilliantly edited battle in which tweedy pensioners wield massive artillery and the whole town explodes.
Well, not the actual town, in point of fact, but a scaled-down developer's model of the town — the kind where the buildings come up to your waist. That's the beauty of Wright and Pegg's aesthetic: The scale of their enterprises is funhouse absurd, but you recognize the terrain. As the New Yorker used to put it, there'll always be an England.