In trying to pinpoint the appeal of the 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz, critics and fans are likely to come up with the phrase “British humor” to encapsulate it, but that catch-all term (like “alternative rock” or “ethnic food”) is so broad as to have hardly any meaning at all. When “British humor” can stretch to accommodate everything from feel-good exports like The Full Monty and Saving Grace to subversive comic firecrackers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the terrifying, short-lived TV sketch show Jam, something is probably amiss. So if we can’t cite “British humor” as an endorsement of Hot Fuzz, how can we describe its appeal?
I think it has a lot to do with how co-writer/director Edgar Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg know how to exploit existing cultural differences between Britain and America for knowing smiles and belly laughs. “They just love mucking around in the pond of temperamental differences that separates the UK and the States,” Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum writes in her review of Hot Fuzz. In the film, Pegg plays Sergeant Nicholas Angel, an uptight copper forced to transfer from the perilous streets of London to a picturesque country village called Sandford. Indeed, Hot Fuzz scores some of its biggest laughs and most memorable moments when it tweaks both American and British sensibilities, cinematic or otherwise. As Pegg puts it, “Hot Fuzz takes the most shamelessly histrionic excesses of American cinema and smashes them into that conservative and profoundly territorial enclave of Britishness, the country village, never once faltering in the assumption that everyone out there will understand.”
Hot Fuzz’s goofy cultural savvy is built into the structure of the film itself. It starts off at an easygoing pace on par with a pastoral film, introducing Nicholas Angel to a Sandford that’s as resolutely well-mannered as any idyllic English village you’ve seen on PBS. Hot Fuzz demonstrates a hyperawareness of American action movie cliché’s via the character of Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), a naïve country constable with a vast library of DVDs from the Bruckheimer mold. In the opening scenes of the film it seems unlikely that Danny will get a real-life chance to reenact his favorite scenes from Point Break and Bad Boys II. Instead, Danny and Nicholas find themselves chasing escaped swans and foiling supermarket shoplifters. Even when things seem to be getting interesting, they just sort of–don’t. In one scene, Nicholas and Danny uncover a cache of unregistered and illegal weapons on a farm, including a sea mine(!). When the boys think the mine’s been triggered, it’s your standard Hollywood action moment, with the heroes diving away from a massive fireball just in time. Well, it’s like that aside from the fact that the heroes dive over a well-kept country hedge, and the fireball never actually turns up. False alarm. Similarly, when Danny and Nick have their first car chase (pulling over a speeding car), it lasts about thirty seconds and results only in a firm verbal reprimand for the offenders. Director Wright grew up in Wells, Somerset, the English village that stands in for Hot Fuzz‘s fictional Sandford, and he delights in teasing out the near-impossibility of transplanting a Hollywood-style actioner to his quiet hometown.
Wright delights even more in making the impossible come to life by dramatically switching gears after a murder plot is discovered in Sandford and the gunfights, car chases, and “proper action” that Danny has longed for become a reality. Yes, the film becomes a bit–well, American–and wheels deliberately out-of-control into utter absurdity. The first time I saw Hot Fuzz (at a raucous Brattle preview screening with Frost, Pegg, and Wright in attendance), I thought that Pegg had delivered the perfect exit line and the film was over; actually the movie goes on for maybe ten more minutes, with action flick antics that all but level the pretty little village. This climactic-scene-pile-up is an unspoken joke, aping the escalating and seemingly never-ending madness of various films from the Michael Bay oeuvre. (The scene selection section of the Hot Fuzz DVD labels three of the closing chapters of the film, “The Final Chapter,” “The Final Chapter: Part II,” and “The Final Chapter: The Final Chapter.”) Yet no matter how ridiculous the film gets, it remains obvious throughout that Wright shares a great deal of Danny’s enthusiasm for the high-octane American junk food movies that Hot Fuzz is riffing on; his enthusiasm just happens to be tempered by a healthy dose of irony. It’s that kind of knowing, teasing, but ultimately affectionate attitude toward both of the cultures being lampooned that makes Hot Fuzz a pleasure to watch for Brits, Yanks, and most everyone else.