Studying Storytelling: Hot Fuzz

This post about the movie Hot Fuzz is Volume 6 in an ongoing series called “Studying Storytelling” in which I review aspects of HOW stories are told, not the stories themselves. Read here for more on this series.

Thus far, the Studying Storytelling series has kept within the cozy confines of my original list from the introductory installment. No longer! Today we tackle a film that, while it was well-reviewed and reasonably successful at release, somehow seems grossly under-appreciated eight years later.

That film is Hot Fuzz, written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, directed by Wright and starring Pegg. It's the follow-up to the surprising success of their zombie parody, Shaun of the Deadfrom 2004 and the second film in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. This "trilogy" is named after the cameo appearances of Cornetto ice cream in each film, but they share little in common other than the fact that each is a loving sendup of a different movie genre.

The decision to write about Hot Fuzz was a change in my planned course – to the extent there is a plan, that is. A couple of months ago I watched 21 Jump Street and its sequel, 22 Jump Street. I'd heard these movies were surprisingly good, raunchy buddy cop comedies, and while by no means perfect, I agreed. They were pretty successful at parodying action movies, and I thought I'd give them a space in my "Studying Storytelling" series because there are specific elements in how they tackled parody that I thought deserved to be called out.

Then I remembered Hot Fuzz, which I had not seen in some time, and knew that was the cop movie parody I should really write about. It's a parody of action films and buddy cop movies nested within an Agatha Christie mystery. It succeeds as a comedy, a true buddy cop film, and a coherent mystery when you're usually lucky to get just one of those. It's also – not exaggerating here – one of the best movies I've ever seen.

But here's where the bad news about this month's piece comes in. It's effectively already been written, and excellently, over at Kotaku by Kirk Hamilton. I won't blame you for jumping ship right now to go read his piece, but I love this movie enough to want to add my perspective anyway.

As is my policy, I avoid discussing the particulars of plot to the extent possible. Part of the reason I like writing this series is that I want to share the things I love with others in hopes they'll want to watch or read them, too. If you're not worried about spoilers or have already seen Hot Fuzz and love it like I do, the Kotaku piece is a must-read.

Here are the basics so that what follows makes some sense. The film tells the story of Simon Pegg as Nicholas Angel, a London cop so good his colleagues can't stand how bad he makes them look. Rather than work harder at their jobs to keep up, they do what any reasonable person would: they get him transferred to the middle of nowhere.

After arriving in the sleepy town of Sandford, his city cop background clashes with the super chill attitude of the good townsfolk and its lackadaisical police force. When a series of strange deaths hits the town, only Angel sees murder where everyone else sees unfortunate accidents. Will he unravel a conspiracy or will the locals prove right that he's making something from nothing?

You can probably partly guess, but that's all we need to discuss for setting things up. Without further adieu, here are three storytelling elements that make Hot Fuzz awesome.

Love Your Progenitors

Parody is a difficult thing to do well. You have to check the boxes of a particular style so that the audience is aware of the thing you're skewering, but if that's all your story does it'll get pretty boring pretty quickly. "Oh I get it, they're making fun of romantic comedies. Now what?"

The parodies work best when they are more than a collection of tropes collected for the purpose of snide mockery. They work when their creators clearly love the source material even as they find the ridiculousness in it. This is what makes the Three Flavors Cornetto movies such fun and movies like "Not Another Teen Movie" and their ilk such a drag (for me anyway).

In the Cornetto movies, there's no question Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg love what they're mocking. Whether it's zombies, buddy cop stories or alien invasions, they enjoy these things on their own merits and it gives them a keener eye for the details that make those genres ripe for mockery.

Where bad cop spoofs often overemphasize the good cop/bad cop trope, Hot Fuzz remixes specific scenes, camera angles and cuts, and even plot points from their favorite action movies. You can feel how good they want it to be. When Nick Frost's character, Danny Butterman, professes a love for Point Break and Bad Boys II, you can bet you'll see shots and jokes tied directly to those films because the writers love them, too. Just as importantly, none of the references are shoved in where they don't fit. They all serve the story.

The film's creators confirmed this love drives what they do.

”We’re always adamant that they’re not spoofs,” Pegg says of Shaun and Hot Fuzz. ”They lack the sneer that a lot of parodies have that look down on their source material. Because we’re looking up to it.”

Bad parodies and spoofs often approach their subject matter with disdain, treating both the content and anyone who likes it as idiots with poor taste. With Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Wright love what they parody unironically and invite the audience to laugh with them instead of laughing at them.

Look! Jokes!

The heading of this section is meant quite literally. Lots of movies have funny lines, but relatively few have visual comedy of any real quality, which is a huge missed opportunity given it's a visual medium (obvious sentence is obvious). Hot Fuzz is the rare exception. It's packed to the gills with visual gags. This is well-addressed in the Kotaku piece, but it bears repeating here.

The visual gags in the film aren't just jokes. They often contribute to the parody itself and are a key element of the storytelling. By using fast cuts and a gazillion camera angles, director Edgar Wright employs the hyperkinetic style of so many modern action films. He then undercuts it with silliness like when a car goes careening through the air, sailing over a scale model village instead of the real thing. Or when the heroes flee from a bomb that's about to go off, only for it to be a dud.

For some great analysis on the two sides of this coin – the over-the-top action style known mockingly as Bayhem and Edgar Wright's visual comedy – check out the utterly fascinating YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting. The author behind these videos breaks down the visual styles used in a variety of types of filmmaking, and I learn a lot every time I watch one of his videos. In the meantime, here's a screenshot of my favorite visual gag from Hot Fuzz involving Timothy Dalton's delightfully creepy grocery store owner, Simon Skinner. It's not the "best" one in terms of creativity, but it kills me every time.

"Do feel free to spool through."

Building a Mystery

I said at the top that Hot Fuzz succeeds on three fronts: as a comedy, a buddy cop action movie, and as a mystery. It's the mystery part that sets it above its peers, and it's the most ambitious aspect of the movie simply by daring to have a real plot.

Comedies, even really enjoyable ones, are often little more than a string of sketches held together by a paint-by-numbers plot. That's fine. We come for the jokes and we barely care that we know where it'll end up before the opening credits are done. Action movies can survive on momentum and excitement alone. Independence Day is a terrifically fun movie in which the big, bad aliens are defeated in part by a computer virus somehow uploaded to an alien computer using a mid-90s Mac.*

While huge plot holes and weak stories can are tolerable certain types of stories, a lackluster mystery is boring and one that falls apart at the end can completely undermine the enjoyment of the previous 90 minutes. It's not that the central mystery in Hot Fuzz is mind-blowing. It doesn't need to be. But it's more than competent, and when the truth is revealed it reinforces and expands on the jokes you've watched all along by opening the door to the final action sequence required of cop movies.

Fuzzy Math: Watch it Twice

I loved Hot Fuzz when I first saw it. The cop movie sendup, the pop culture references – much of this is easily enjoyed the first time you watch them movie. But the real marvel is watching it again and seeing how impeccably constructed the thing is. The Kotaku article and some of my points above give you clues for what to look for when you watch it, but you can see so much more when you watch it again and know what's coming. It's the way certain lines and scenes early in the film set up callbacks later on. It's how it weaves together different genres into a story that works on its own apart from being a parody. It's in the dozens of great British actors that shine, many of them in small roles.

Hot Fuzz is decidedly British in its comedic sensibilities even as it largely sets its sights on American action films. If this dry, droll humor is not your thing, you might not enjoy this as much as I did. But then, you'd be wrong. You should watch Hot Fuzz.

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Photo provided by West Midlands Police under Creative Commons 2.0

*Read here to ruin more movies you probably loved.