“I wouldn’t argue that it was a no-holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, but there’s no way you could perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork.”
In the spring of 2007, Edgar Wright’s follow-up to his debut feature Shaun of the Dead arrived in the States via a most unusual package. Midway through Grindhouse, sandwiched between Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, was a passel of fake exploitation trailers dreamed up by Wright, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie.
By chance, all three had their own movies coming out that year, so it was possible that, in addition to Don’t, Thanksgiving, and Werewolf Women of the S.S., one’s screening of Grindhouse could also be accompanied by trailers for Zombie’s Halloween remake, Roth’s Hostel: Part II, and/or Wright’s Hot Fuzz. (I distinctly remember seeing the latter two at mine.) That’s the kind of canny cross-pollination that birthed Grindhouse in the first place, but the gulf between it and Hot Fuzz meant the select audience that came out for Rodriguez and Tarantino’s baby wouldn’t necessarily be driven to return to the multiplex two weeks later to see Wright’s. Those who did, however, were treated to an action-comedy that doesn’t skimp on either side of the equation.
Boasting a layered script by Wright and star Simon Pegg, who boned up on their action bona-fides before setting to work, Hot Fuzz comes out guns blazing, efficiently introducing Pegg’s character, gung-ho London police constable Nicholas Angel, with a high-velocity montage that’s packed to the gills with biographical info. It also ably establishes why his superiors (played by Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy) are so eager to promote him to sergeant and pack him off to the peaceful village of Sandford, Gloucestershire. His inability to “switch off” isolates him socially at the same time it makes him a preternaturally capable policeman, but where he lands seems to be in no need of his detail-oriented brand of police work — “seems” being the operative word here.
As was the case with Shaun, the key relationship in Hot Fuzz is the one between Pegg and Nick Frost, who plays guileless Sandford PC Danny Butterman, the only member of the local constabulary who takes to their new sergeant — or even attempts to. (Nicholas is about as popular with the rest of his new colleagues as he was with “the team” back in London.) Nevertheless, Nicholas is welcomed with open arms and big smiles by the village’s leading citizens, whose ranks are filled by a host of stalwart British character actors including Jim Broadbent, Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, and Timothy Dalton (who has a way of making the most innocuous remark sound sinister). As Nicholas comes to suspect, though, there’s something off about Sandford and its Neighborhood Watch Alliance, including its members’ overriding obsession with winning Village of the Year, no matter the cost.
One of the primary joys of watching — and re-watching — Hot Fuzz today is getting to see Wright and Pegg’s tightly wound plot unfold as Nicholas puts the pieces together, albeit in a way that doesn’t add up to the true reality of the situation. (Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” was tailor-made for these stick-in-the-mud busybodies whose stated goal is to “make Sandford great again.”) Along the way, they toss in allusions and references to tons of classic action films, many of which Wright included on the list of 1000 Favorite Movies he compiled for Mubi in July 2016, although the two that get the most direct shout-outs — Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon and Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II — are conspicuously absent from it. And Wright’s intensive pre-planning, which extended to storyboarding the entire film, pays off in an escalated series of easy-to-follow action sequences and seamless match cuts that astonish as much as they delight.
In the decade since Hot Fuzz burned up the box office charts, taking in $80 million worldwide (a respectable return on its modest budget), Wright and Pegg have teamed up once more, closing out the “Three Flavors Cornetto” trilogy with the suitably apocalyptic The World’s End in 2013. But while Pegg’s acting career has kept him busy starring in a steady stream of indies and blockbusters (chief among them the Star Trek reboot, the last entry of which he co-wrote), Wright’s output has been more of a trickle. Of course, it doesn’t help that he had to pull out of Marvel’s Ant-Man over the proverbial “artistic differences,” but he’s bounced back with Baby Driver, his first film as solo writer and director. Anticipation has been running high since its premiere last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and its release has been bumped up from the doldrums of mid-August to the end of June — a sure sign of confidence on the part of its distributor. This means more competition, though, so Baby Driver will have to do some fancy maneuvering to stay ahead of the pack. One thing is certain: If Wright brings the same level of craft and dedication that he did on Hot Fuzz, it’s sure to be a wild ride.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., which will not win Village of the Year anytime soon.