Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hot Fuzz Day Two: Welcome to Sandford

| by Justin Thomas |

While I’ve never wet myself while laughing, I came close during Hot Fuzz on opening night. Frank and Skinner have hopped into a police car and are attempting to make their escape with Danny and Nicholas firing their guns whilst in high-speed pursuit. A swan suddenly appears in the road. Frank pulls the wheel hard to the right, the car lifts into the air and flies over Sandford in slow motion. Aaron A. Aaronson looks up in amazement. The car crashes past the Model Village. My bladder remains intact but I can barely see through the tears I’m laughing so hard.

Afterward, it bothered me because the first viewing convinced me I’d just seen a well-constructed movie with the exception of the Model Village. I didn’t get why it was there. It was a surprise and I thought they’d missed something even though everything else was so tightly wound. Subsequent viewings showed me Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright set up the joke just fine in the screenplay but I missed the clues.

In the whirlwind trip from Nicholas Angel’s going-away party to his entry to the Swan – the hotel, not Sandford’s Most Wanted, – there’s a quick road sign indicating the direction to the Model Village. It’s not a “Welcome to Sandford – England’s Model Village” but an actual model village. That’s clue one. Clue two comes when one of the Andys tells Nicholas, “If you want to be a big cop in a small town, f*ck off up to the Model Village.” Again, the actual model village. It’s hidden well but if I had really been paying attention I wouldn’t have been so surprised when it happened, and it’s precisely what makes Hot Fuzz work so well in terms of storytelling.

The story, even with its layered absurdity, absolutely works. As with Shaun of the Dead, the screenplay is constructed in such a way the payoffs, both in the jokes and in the story, are established well enough that everything is earned. There are no cheats and it avoids Shaun’s sticky wicket. It is not boring. While the screenplay is the easy target when a movie doesn’t work, typically everyone up to and including the best boy gets the credit before the screenplay when a movie does work (generalizing, I know, but it feels that way). Hot Fuzz is so tight there is no way the movie could work if it didn’t start from a perfect screenplay. (I know, I know, the hoodie infestation subplot fell to the floor in editing, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work at the writing stage.)

I kinda like it here

I’ve tried to sniff out the influence of Monty Python on Pegg and Wright, and I believe I found it in Hot Fuzz. For you heathens in Buford Abbey who might not know, Monty Python wasn’t about jokes but about setting utterly absurd situations in normal, everyday life. Why were there Vikings in the shop selling Spam? Because they didn’t belong there and it was funny. Why set that very American genre of the buddy cop/action movie in a quaint English village? Because it doesn’t belong there and it’s funny. Why have Angel uncover the sinister plot of land speculation, murder and baked beans when the Neighborhood Watch Alliance actually killed people for trivial reasons such as building a house that hardly kept with the village’s rustic aesthetic? Because it’s absurd and, consequently, funny. That’s a direct line back to Flying Circus.

But the sinister plot of the N.W.A., whether it’s what Nicholas and Danny uncovered or doing the necessary things to win Village of the Year, isn’t the story. Hot Fuzz is about getting Nicholas to the point where he says “I kinda like it here,” and everything else is just the MacGuffin. It’s a really fun MacGuffin, but all the sinister plot does is get Nicholas interacting with Danny and Sandford to the point he learns he doesn’t need to be the Sheriff of London. Danny’s a huge part of that but so is the rest of the crew at the Police Station, and once they stop being blinded by Frank, they get in line, become police officers with whom Nicholas would be proud to serve and the put an end to the N.W.A. All the mechanics of the plot do is serve to tell the story of how Nicholas gets comfortable living in Sandford.

Everyone and their mums is packing ‘round here.

Nothing comes out of left field in Hot Fuzz. Everything is set up early and, if necessary, often, so that when the payoff hits the payoff is earned. There are no points where everything gets bogged down for the heavy emotional moment from which the movie can’t escape. It’s similar to a house of cards in that every moment is there for a reason; if one were removed, or altered, the entire thing might come falling down.

The movie opens with a massive amount of information as to why Nicholas Angel is a super cop, but the first time we learn about who he might be as a person comes when Janine accuses him of being unable to switch off. It happens again when Danny tells him to switch off that big melon of his. The payoff happens when Nicholas finally switches off and lets Sandford’s Finest know that, even though manpower might be a bit sexist, he knows Doris doesn’t mind a bit of manpower. It’s mostly character development but it also illustrates how the change didn’t happen for no reason (an example where that occurred would be Norm in Avatar).

Another example would be when in Roper’s shop, Danny tells Roper they’re just looking for the one swan. Later Danny has to tell Roper they’re just looking for the one killer, which is the clue Nicholas needs. Both shots are set up identically with virtually identical lines to allow the audience to make the same connection.

In Shaun, Ed describes to Shaun what the events Z Day will be in drinking terms. Bloody Marys in the morning, a bite, a couple, a little princess and stumble back to the Winchester for shots. “Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” “Have you ever fired one gun whilst jumping through the air?” “Have you ever fired your gun whilst in high-speed pursuit?” “Have you ever fired your gun up in the air and gone ‘ah?’” Danny describes everything that will eventually happen but it’s not forced or out of context because he’s happened across the super cop and wants to know about proper action. And sh*t.

One more for the road, and it’s a doozy: in the pub, Nicholas wants to know who’s packing, one of the Andys says farmers, who else, the same Andy says farmers mums. Hot Fuzz is so well put together the first person in Sandford to pull a gun is the farmer’s mum.

I think you would have made a great Muppet...

Hot Fuzz picks a moment to get heavy just like Shaun did, but how Hot Fuzz handled it could make a case for Pegg and Wright knowing they made a misstep in the first movie. Nicholas and Danny have that heartfelt scene where they get down to brass tacks as to who they are. Nicholas used to drive around his pedal car and arrest his friends, which built his sense of right and wrong and rule of law. Danny listens, is concerned and knows Nicholas needs to learn how to switch off. It’s a heavy moment because not only are they connecting, they’re connecting over why they became police officers and they both have something ugly in their backgrounds that caused it. Nicholas had a bad uncle and Danny lost his mom. It slows down, the music goes soft, then Danny stabs a fork into his eye with blood splattering everywhere. He reveals the joke and they get back to drinking while Nicholas switches off. Finally. The scene gets heavy but doesn’t last long and the heaviness is countered with a laugh. There in that scene, dear reader, is Pegg and Wright learning.

Morning, Sergeant

During his first run through the village everyone greets Nicholas with, “Morning, Sergeant.” Later in the movie, at least a solid fifteen minutes later, Nicholas chases Peter Cocker through the village and we get one last “Morning, Sergeant,” which adds a layer of humor to the excitement of the chase. It’s so slight it might be easily missed but it also illustrates how nothing was left to chance. It helps make Angel just running through a bunch of gardens more than a boring run through the gardens.

There are two massive sequences of information dump: one when Nicholas and Danny attempt to solve the crimes and one when Nicholas finally meets up with the killers. Both could be squashed by the amount of information but by adding layers of humor and style Hot Fuzz gets away with it. While going through those murdered and the Sandford Bloody Citizen, each character murdered has things that can get a laugh while also describing why the N.W.A. decided to kill each one. Eve Draper had an appalling laugh, the cause of her death sentence, but Danny gives the “fingers...” to provide one for the audience. Martin Blower wasn’t necessarily a bad driver but was unquestionably a bad actor. And the payoff comes in after identifying a plausible plot, Danny gives up and says maybe they weren’t murdered.

And the midnight meeting of the N.W.A.? The chanting of “the greater good” substituted just once with “crusty jugglers” does it. It’s long but there’s a good, non-boring laugh in there supporting the insanity of them killing people because of reasons they think might prevent them from winning the all-important Village of the Year award.

Pack it in Frank, you silly bastard

Wow. I’m sorry about the length of that. I’ll get out of here in a moment.

There are too many things in Hot Fuzz that match too well for them to be happy, on-set accidents. Please note that Frank and Danny wear the same cowboy outfits at the fete they wore in their photo with Danny’s mum. That one might be easy, but the farmer’s mum one isn’t. Pulling off the scenes of exposition isn’t. Establishing a character so well that we absolutely buy that he’d stop during a high-speed pursuit to grab the escaped swan, because that’s also his duty, can’t happen on set. Or maybe it can, but maybe not leaving it to chance by starting with a solid blueprint might help a movie’s chances.

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