Law and Disorder 

Hot Fuzz makes hash of cop-movie clichés—and invigorates them at the same time

After diligently cataloging everything from the 1973 Robert Blake vehicle Electra Glide in Blue to the immortal Patrick Swayze-Keanu Reeves face-off Point Break, they devised a riotous mash-up of cop-socky’s greatest hits—without exempting the Clue-like legacy of Hercule Poirot.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler laments the dum-dum conventions of detective fiction, especially the cozy British model and its highball-sipping American cousins. The settings change, the murder weapons change, Chandler writes, “[but] fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.”

Chandler gripes about the lack of psychological realism in the Agatha Christie whodunit, where murder is a parlor game with corpses instead of charade titles. But is the hard-boiled American cop movie, for all its perps and pistols, any less clichéd? Ask the TV ’tater who watches Lethal Weapon 2 every other weekend on TBS: it’s as by-the-book as that ubiquitous rookie who always gets paired up with the street-smart veteran. The tropes are trucked out more frequently than Miranda rights: The Bad Guy Who’ll Have Your Badge for This; The Million-Bullet Shootout; The Fireball You Dive Away From in Slow-Motion; The Retiring Cop Who’s Getting Too Old for This Shit.

“There are only four plotlines in all of cop movies,” says Edgar Wright, who knows them more intimately than anyone not named Bruce Willis. As director and co-writer of Hot Fuzz, a delirious British homage to the rootin’, tootin, assault-weapon-shootin’ Hollywood cop movie—as well as its SWAT-team mates around the globe—Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg underwent what Wright calls “a total immersion in the genre.” After diligently cataloging everything from the 1973 Robert Blake vehicle Electra Glide in Blue to the immortal Patrick Swayze-Keanu Reeves face-off Point Break, they devised a riotous mash-up of cop-socky’s greatest hits—without exempting the Clue-like legacy of Hercule Poirot.

Miles from the endearing slacker savior he played in Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, Pegg plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a gung-ho last-boy-scout type whose overachieving on the force gets him booted from the London constabulary. He winds up in Sandford, a picturesque village where the biggest emergency is a runaway swan and the doddering police chief (Jim Broadbent) runs a chummy precinct house with a swear jar.

But only Angel sees anything strange about the town’s lack of crime but catastrophic accident rate. That’s even before the corpses start piling up, including one spectacular gory death that rivals Kurosawa’s Sanjuro for voluminous splatter. Aided by a blundering partner who owns every DVD ever made with a gun on the cover—Wright wisely reunites Pegg with Shaun scene-stealer Nick Frost—Angel soon learns that what looks like the Kinks’ tweedy Village Green Preservation Society is closer to the fascist star chamber of Magnum Force.

Even with Frost doing his best Keanu surfer-dude grimace, the comedy is less Airplane!-style parody than a trickier, subtler mix of affectionate ribbing and fond re-creation. (You can see it on display also in “Don’t,” the amazing fake trailer Wright provided for Grindhouse: it condenses a century of old-dark-house clichés into a flipbook of comic terrors, made all the funnier by Wright’s percussive editing sense.) Cop movies, after all, are reassuring for the same reasons as cozy mysteries: they restore order. The cop movie is the inversion of Robert Warshow’s famous description of the gangster movie: it’s the “yes” to society’s “no”—the nightstick crack that reminds you who makes the rules.

But boyish Pegg and baby-faced Frost have an innocence that removes any hint of authoritarian bluster. By taking the bombast out of the cop-movie conventions, Hot Fuzz actually makes them exciting again. The blazing finale, in which Pegg and Frost turn into the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence of bucolic Britain, rocks as hard as any John Woo or Shane Black smackdown even as it kids the familiar slow-motion sideways leaps and villain impalements. It helps that they’re surrounded by a top-notch cast of overseas thesps, from Edward Woodward (whose The Wicker Man is given a nod) and Kenneth Cranham as villagers to Paddy Considine as the Sandford PD’s resident macho blockhead. (Watch also for cameos by Bill Nighy, Steve Coogan, director Peter Jackson as a very bad Santa, and an Oscar-winning actress who’s covered up except for her twinkling eyes.)

Tell Wright that the result resembles Murder on the Orient Express crossed with High Plains Drifter, and he’s a happy man. “That’s it, right on,” he says during a promotional jaunt with Pegg and Frost in Atlanta. While he says Britain has little cop-movie tradition to speak of—“In the U.K.,” he explains, “it’s faintly ridiculous to see an officer packing heat, and the genre iconography is all about packing heat”—he gladly immersed himself in anything from brutal Italian poliziotteschi to Jean-Pierre Melville’s hitman reverie Le Samourai looking to unlock the genre. His epiphany came, he says, “when I realized that [the Chuck Norris head-buster] Code of Silence and L.A. Confidential had essentially the same plotlines.”

After ransacking the world’s supply of cop clichés, Wright says there’s one even he couldn’t bring himself to include: the groaner where the hero angrily hands in his badge. But there are still plenty more where it came from—enough, perhaps, to stoke a sequel if Hot Fuzz catches on here the way it has in Britain. “Put enough chimps at typewriters,” Edgar Wright says, “and eventually you’ll get the screenplay for Bad Boys 2.” Roger that.


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