Saturday, January 20, 2007

Finally! My Hot Fuzz Review

This is my third serious attempt to write a review of Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz after some days of reflection and a minor crisis of confidence. Hopefully it will, at least, raise discussion about some of the very interesting things in the film, and in how the film was made. I've decided to structure this as an interview with myself, for brevity, clarity and ease. Enjoy.

What is Hot Fuzz about?

Nick Angel is the consummate cop, married to the Met - which costs him his girlfriend pretty much right off the bat. With an arrest tally 4 times that of his peers he's simply too good to be true - and this isn't pleasing his superiors (think Sting and Jonathan Pryce in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, maybe, but without the messy execution) so Angel is relocated to sleepy Sandford, a West Country village with no recorded murders in 20 years but a suspiciously high accident rate. No prizes for guessing that 'All is Not What it Seems'.

Before long, Angel has teamed up with Danny Butterman, played by Nick Frost. Danny is an idealistic Police Officer too, but unlike Angel, his ideals have been filtered through his beloved collection of action movies. Point Break and Bad Boys II are particular favourites - and lo and behold, anybody who knows those films will spot their influence and impact on Hot Fuzz. In fact, while we're on the subject, I'd like to note that when Danny is eventually moved to reprise his favourite scene from Point Break, the moment plays out in a genuinely unexpected and pretty darn satisfying fashion. It's a simple surprise, but not a cheap one.

Who's in the film, and how do they do?

Simon Pegg stars as Nick Angel with Nick Frost as his Sandford sidekick, Danny Butterman. Danny's Dad, Inspector Frank Butterman, is played by Jim Broadbent, and other players on the village's police force include Bill Bailey, The Actor Kevin Eldon, Olivia Colman, Bill Bailey and the superb double act of Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall as moustachioed detectives 'The Andys'. Let it be said that this section of the cast is, for the most part, bang on: Bill Bailey is twice as entertaining as I'd expected, Colman couldn't have been better cast and Broadbent is, as ever, truly wonderful.

The other half of the Sandford cast are the various locals, most of them making up the round table of the pointedly-named NWA, or Neighbourbood Watch Association. You'll spot a whole host of famous faces, from Billie Whitelaw and Edward Woodward to Timothy Dalton and Anne Reid and, truthfully, many of them are underused in brief parts or playing simple characters. All the same, the film wouldn't have benefited from the roles being filled with unknowns, necessarily, nor from all of these smaller parts being needlessly pumped up just to showcase stars. To say that many of the actors are underemployed is simply the flipside of noting how high calibre a cast Wright has amassed.

Other than the locals, you'll see Steve Coogan, Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman pop up briefly as Angel's superiors in the Police Fo... er... Service. Unfortunately, I think it's rather easy to be a little distracted while they're on screen, contemplaying how flimsy and awkward the plot device of Angel's relocation for being too good a copper feels - certainly from a screenwriting team as accomplished as Wright and Pegg. I was expecting an ulterior motive to come to the fore, one that would both pull the rug out from under me and at the same time make sense of this curious premise, but it doesn't come.

There's a pat on the back and a nibble of biscuit for anyone who can identify the masked actors in the early, offbeat CSI scene during which Angel and his girlfriend split up.

What were your initial reactions?

As the film started? I was deeply disappointed by most of the first ten or fifteen minutes. For some reason, the implausible plot mechanic that gets Angel on the road to Sandford doesn't sit easily with me at all. I'd also contend that Wright overdoes the crash-zooming, flash-cutting montages, each one cranked up to eleven and nothing less than absolutely disruptive. He's overstepped economy of storytelling by two deep strides and reduced many of the early sequences to a barrage of sound and fury that disrupt any possibilty of the audience settling into an immersive diegesis. Oh, how 'traditionalist' I am...

..and then, Angel reaches Sandford, and each scene starts to have something more to it. Sometimes this is something more that then goes a little undeveloped - for example, Pegg and Whitelaw's first scene together at the hotel check in. Before she looks up from her crossword, every line Whitelaw delivers seems to riff on the celestial implication of Angel's name. It seems that we're being set up for some kind of spiritual (or at least metaphysical, or maybe just fantastical) subtext... but that's just about the last we hear of it. Of course, Angel does end up facing down evil and... look, let's not think too deeply about this here. But bear it in mind when you go see the film.

Every line Whitelaw delivers after first looking up from her crossword... well, let me just say that there are plenty of well-set up gags in Hot Fuzz, and a lot of material that gets reincorporated again, and again, and again in new, surprising and often funny ways.

Any examples of this kind of thing?

Here's a lesser example, then a better one.

There's a goose loose aboot this... er... village [EDIT: Swan. A swan. Stupid me] and when we first find out about it, there's a great gag about prank callers. We see the goose [EDIT: SWAN!] again in some key scenes - and while his final appearance is pleasantly from out of left-field, it does feel a bit... cheaper and cheekier, I'd say, than I think some audience members might have liked.

The better example revolves around Danny and Nick's DVD double bill of Point Break and Bad Boys II. The Bad Boys references aren't as blatantly signposted as the crucial Point Break one, but then, you see, they aren't really as significant, and there is a smart twist to Danny's final Point Break moment that reveals how misleading the signage has been. Danny eventually gets to live out an emotional beat from the film that has always meant something to him, but the moment ends up nothing like the obvious course of events which an attentive or cynical viewer may forecast. This twist is a result of the kind of structural intricacy that Wright and Pegg can excel at, and which Shaun displayed beautifully. While there's a lot of this tight and confounding plotting in Fuzz too, it's not always as neat and tidy, tidy and neat as in Shaun, and sometimes - if rarely - seems just a touch mechanical. You might think I'm splitting hairs, here, when you see the film, but I think it's only respectful to apply the highest standards to this movie. If I'm saying Hot Fuzz sometimes falls somewhat short of my expectations that's definitely not to say it's a bad film. Not at all.

Enough of the negative vibe for now. What's your favourite stuff in the film?

One scene in particular struck me as being absolutely brilliant. Seriously, this is a bit of filmmaking I'd teach to my students. I might find it hard to talk about a scene that comes so late in the film without giving away spoilers, but I'm certainly going to try.

First of all, some set up: very late on, Nick Angel has an impressive Poirot/Jonathan Creek moment in which he compiles all of the evidence against the prime suspect for Sandford's series of grisly deaths. He's not wrong - everything he points to, every odd occurence he cites is accurately noted and interpreted, it's just that, frankly, he's only scratching the surface. The evil is far more insidious. Within a couple more scenes we find out at last just what's been going down... and the revelation is awesome.

Okay - SPOILER WARNING - I can't really discuss this further without giving something away. First of all, you need to know that everytime a killing has occured earlier, we've seen the killer. Not entirely unlike the outfit in Scream, they're wearing a hooded black robe. No mask, however. It's not only an ultimately ironic allusion to hoodies, it's also something like the garb of the KKK and this is no accident. Bear this Klan connotation in mind, and recall a little Bad Boys 2 if you can. That's a good starting place to try and pick up on what I'm saying.

The scene, ultimately, exposes the absurdity of racism and nationalism. You'll see exactly why when you see it. It's a sharp, bright flash in the film, a kick-yourself moment, because suddenly, so much of what has passed makes a new, more profound kind of sense. I could have stood up and applauded, but... er... I was a bit shy.

I reckon, had this been the scene where The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society was played on the soundtrack, the effect would have been dizzying, unnerving, eccentric, wickedly black and utterly unforgettable. Where the song does come, it's fine - just not really used any better than, say, as the theme to Jam and Jerusalem.

Of course, there were many scenes in Shaun that operated on the level of this great moment. Hot Fuzz is generally pitched at a more superficial level to it's Zom-Rom-Com predecessor.

You're saying the film is superficial?

No! I just went to great pains to try and draw the audience's attention to the brilliant sly, ironic satire on racism and nationalism that comes to a head in the film's greatest scene - does it sound like I think it's superficial? What I was trying to say was... Shaun had a few more things to say, and a good number more scenes that could be chewed over in this way.

Of course, Fuzz seeks to put the pedal to the metal for some straight-ahead, flat-out entertainment at times. If you want it to be superficial (and surfing the web, I actually think a lot of people do - or, at least, expect it to be and don't mind the fact) then you won't be disappointed at all.

Anymore little points you'd like to bring up?

Here's a few notes on the film. Things to chew over when you see Hot Fuzz. Sorry if they ramble off a little, but I would like to bring them up if I may.

I'd say that while Shaun of the Dead is never a parody, Hot Fuzz sometimes feels as though it is (but not at the base level of Date Movie or Jane Austen's Mafia!). While some scenes in Hot Fuzz disappointed on some levels, most of these same scenes do actually succeed very well as parody. Take this as a spoof, and if you're happy with that, it's a pretty strong one. Most of the things that really ticked me off personally - the general formal adherence to a Tony Scott or Michael Bay action model and not a, say, James Cameron one - do make lots more sense when you expect the film to operate only the level of pastiche or homage.

On the other hand... some of the action scenes are staged and edited in a way that prevents 100% immersion in the events. I'll take the chase through and from Anne Reid's flower shop as an example and try to break this down to exactly what I'm trying to say.

The sequence revolves around two key figures - we'll call them the hunter and the hunted. Take a cut in the sequence and look at the frame immediately preceeding it, and the frame immediately afterwards - the last frame of one shot, the first of the next. When the two figures, hunter and hunted are not both seen at the same time in either of these frames, the effect is a little dislocative, but more to the point, hampers a viewer's understanding of the space and motion on display. Here's a demonstration: shot one features hunter pursuing hunted, hunted disappears around cornera few frames before the cut; shot two features hunted running, a few frames in, hunter appears around the corner. Now, this is a great cheat for tweaking pacing and avoiding the kind of continuity editing that fakes a single flowing action from two different takes, but that's not always a good thing. When it is carried out too many times in close succession, the audience is denied some opportunities to develop their imagined, perceived 3D space for the sequence, and indeed, their understanding of this imaginary space can weaken in their mind.

An action scene is all about bodies at rest and in motion, about kinetics, about velocity and inertia, the distance between different bodies and their relative orientation. Stripped down too much a lot of these factors can be fuzzied, even while upping the pace and sense of anxiety in the sequence - it's a balancing act. I think that Wright pushes this pared down action editing beyond it's limits at times and the resulting action
scenes feel a shade disconnected, if suitably frantic. This might be perceived as pedantry on my part but, well, I'm just trying to judge the film by the highest standard in the best way I know how.

While I'm on the subject of rapidly cut sequences, there was one particularly nifty ploy that caught my eye. In one sequence a drunk local has been escorted home by Angel and Butterman who leave, (for some reason) not spotting the hooded killer figure lurking nearby. What follows is a series of rapidly exchanged shots (you know the drill by now) that illustrate the next sequence of events pretty much in the language of the blipvert. One such cut, however, to a POV shot of a toilet bowl being sprayed with urine, tricks the audience for the blink of an eye in a noteworthy manner.

You see, the shot comes directly after another that it appears to follow on from - in the sense that shot A and then B are part of the same story thread. But then we see shot C, and in fact, B was not a progression down the narrative featuring shot A, but the beginning of a new line progressing into shot C. It's a trick not entirely unlike one in Un Chien Andalou (though kind of in reverse) where a shot of a cloud passing in front of the moon appears to be an establishing shot for a new scene but is then revealed as a reverse angle shot in a continuing, still unbroken, scene. In the Bunuel and Dali film this trick is preface to a shocking act of violence and displaces the audience extremely, but fairly and in a comprehensible way. The same is true, to quite an extent, of the moment in Hot Fuzz under discussion. I won't nit pick any of the other shots or cuts in the sequence - let's just celebrate this really fun one.

Sounds to me that you're quite conflicted?

Well, yeah, I guess. The more I think about Hot Fuzz, the more I like it. Love it, even. But it isn't as consistently strong a piece of filmmaking as Shaun of the Dead. My initial reaction was one of massive disappointment, but since then, to be frank, I've stopped wallowing and started looking at the film for what it is.

All the same, I can't help thinking Wright's next film could be much better, certainly his next film co-written with Pegg... I think Wright is only just starting, really. It's very exciting to imagine which other subjects he is interested in, and which brilliant ways he will find to express his ideas about them.

Blimey... you've gone on a bit. Are you done yet?

For now. But, you see, the best thing about Hot Fuzz - about good films in general - is that you can't pot them. You can't fit them in a wee walnut shell. There's so much more that I could have said, and maybe will later. Indeed, if anybody reading has any specific questions, then send them to me and I'll try to address them - just don't bother with a load of questions asking for plot details and spoilers, please.

Oh... and no matter what, do not miss Hot Fuzz in cinemas - across the UK from February 16, in the US some long, lonely months later on April 13.


Anonymous said...

interesting review. so, basically, a flawed masterpiece?

Anonymous said...

What an odd review. And it's a swan, not a goose.

Brendon said...

Indeed it is a Swan. And I simply don't have an excuse for such a ridiculous mistake.

Sledge said...

I still can't wait to see Hot Fuzz.
Even with its flaws, it'll be one of the best of 2007.

Anonymous said...

I got the chance to see a sneak peek of HOT FUZZ and I loved this movie more than Shaun of the Dead and I am HUGE Shaun fan.

The writing is brilliant and I think they could teach a whole screenwriting class on this film alone. Edgar Wright is an amazing filmmaker and this is evident with FUZZ. I can't wait to see it again!

Brendon said...

I would hope they wouldn't include the sub plot about Nick Angel being relocated in a screenwriting class, it seems like a bunch of loose ends and I found it hard to swallow.

Anonymous said...

Just finished watching this movie at a special preview gala screening at Worcester's Vue cinema tonight. Yes the first few minutes are a little slow but then ... POW! Fantastic movie.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous.

Brendon said...

Hey, Anonymous which other Anonymous is it that you agree with?