Max DeCurtins goes back to Sandford for a Hot Fuzz rewatch, finding that what was sickly humorous in 2007 is now terrifying in our current political and cultural landscape of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, and broken justice systems.
Coming off something of a re-view drought in 2016, I e-mailed the esteemed 10YA editor a few months ago to stake a claim on a number of 2007 films up for re-view in 2017. Of course, I didn’t really do the second step, which would be checking when said movies actually came out, so that I could see where the re-viewing would fall in my schedule. Adulting. Yaaarrrp.
So when the reminder came along for Hot Fuzz, I was eyeballs-deep in the Linux manual pages, known simply as the “man pages” (gay aside: if only!), considering the implications of referencing memory for bit flags involved in the behavior of signal handling, which I’m sure you’re absolutely dying to know more about. All this is to say that this re-view is going to be a little like the show that goes on having had a rehearsal but no sound check. So here goes.
Hot Fuzz is fast-paced. It is gory. It is, psychologically, a bit terrifying in 2017. It is oh so very British. And it is way more hilarious than I remember, probably because I was half-drunk the first time I saw it. As with a not-insignificant fraction of the British entertainment I enjoy, I was introduced to Hot Fuzz by my inimitable friend David, a most exemplary chum I’ve known since the summer after first grade.
We’ve all made that joke about an algorithm that generates band names. Take an adjective, apply it to a noun that it would never, ever, not even a teensy bit, modify in the course of, you know, regular English prose, and PRESTO! Instant band name. Cynical Asphalt. Vengeful Smorgasbord. Sclerotic Asparagus. Sometimes one wonders if the same doesn’t hold true for British colloquial. Take a noun, any noun, and substitute it for another noun, with maybe a head-fake toward mass or count noun plurality, and PRESTO! Instant British slang. This, I feel, is the only reasonable explanation for how “police,” “copper,” and “fuzz” all refer to the same thing. Next time I have guests for dinner, I promise to excuse myself, in my best RP—which is to say, a terrible facsimile—to the kitchen to “stir the carpet,” and by carpet, of course I mean stew. This isn’t, by the way, some idle aside—it’s literally how Hot Fuzz got its name. At least director Edgar Wright didn’t ask the Internet: if he had, we might have had Fuzzy McFuzzface.
Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg, known more recently for his turn as Scotty in the maybe-it-sucks-maybe-it-rocks Star Trek alternate timeline reboot, and a man who should not go blond), consummate copper and all-around unicorn—in the Silicon Valley sense, not the Starbucks frappuccino sense—finds himself reassigned against his will from London to Sandford, many-time winner of the “Village of the Year” award, the acme of the supposed ideal of British country village life, with its picture-perfect cobblestone streets, lush gardens, lively community events, homely pub, and hospitable villagers.
This is now 2017, folks. We’ve seen Brexit and Drumpf make it, Geert Wilders and Norbert Hofer nearly make it, and Marine Le Pen . . . well, we’ll find out on May 7. All these political phenomena have traded in a narcissistic, xenophobic appeal to a national identity that supposedly mattered to the ideal citizens of yesteryear but that is now under attack from . . . what, exactly? The increased responsibility that comes with a more complex view of the problems we face? Sandford could easily be a mostly white town in Wisconsin or a small village in the Île-de-France. The thing about neat and tidy communities is that they never were (or are) as neat and tidy as some insist on believing.
Sent away from London for making the rest of the force look bad, Nicholas Angel soon discovers that Sandford pushes all his Type-A, law-enforcing buttons, with its bumbling fuzz (that would be the police force he’s joining), its underage drinkers, and its apparent willingness to bend the rules in favor of “The Common Good™.” Angel’s boss, Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent, who I just realized looks cannily like the ED of my center), has a diabetes-worthy sweet tooth kept satisfied by his son, Constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who buys the force treats as punishment for his general ineptitude. Frank assigns Danny to be Angel’s partner, much to Angel’s dismay and to jeers from the rest of the Sandford fuzz.
Everyone in Sandford has, it seems, their own slice of fucked up. There’s an actual Orwellian surveillance center, staffed by Prof. Tom Weaver (Edward Woodward). Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton, mobster AF and with diction to match) runs the local supermarket, which is exactly the kind of front operation you’d expect for a mob organization. He even has a hired goon, Michael Armstrong (Rory McCann). Yaaarrrp. There’s Tim Messenger, the journalist, and George Merchant, the rich businessman. Other delightful denizens of Sandford include the Rev. Philip Shooter (Paul Freeman), Peter Cocker (Ben McKay), and nauseatingly bad actor Martin Blower (David Threlfall). From this we learn that in Sandford it’s apparently quite common to have a last name that refers to something a penis does, something a penis is called, or something done to a penis.
Not long after Nicholas Angel arrives in Sandford, the murders start. Passed off as “accidents,” as Sandford hasn’t had a recorded murder in 20 years, Nicholas begins to suspect that they are in fact homicides, and connected to each other to boot. As the body count—and Angel’s suspicion—grows, the community’s gaslighting of Nicholas increases. In 2007, I could imagine this being sickly humorous, but still funny. Certainly the half-drunk, 22-year-old me probably thought so. In 2017, it’s fucking terrifying. From “alternative facts” and the subversion of knowledge itself to the systematic dismissal and denial of climate change, inequality, the flaws of unrestrained capitalism, and systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny—gaslighting is real, it’s abusive, and it makes a good chunk of Hot Fuzz incredibly uncomfortable to watch, even as its characteristically British humor remains laser-sharp throughout the movie, right down to the sad bits being scored with music that always sounds like a knockoff of the second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.
I won’t delve any further into the plot, since there are few ways of describing it without spoiling the rest of the movie, except to say this: SOMEONE ACTUALLY SAYS THE WORDS “MAKE SANDFORD GREAT AGAIN.” THIS IS NOT A DRILL PEOPLE.
There’s a word, I’m sure of it, that means: “This thing is really funny but really shouldn’t be funny because while it’s clearly meant to be viewed from a position of ironic self-awareness the context in which I’m viewing it makes it both hilarious and fucking scary as fuck thanks to cultural shit that wasn’t relevant then but totally fucking is now.” You know the word I’m talking about, right? Because that’s Hot Fuzz in spades.
Watching a police action movie, even a self-described buddy cop spoof, in 2017 is just so, so not a carefree escapist distraction. I don’t even get how people, especially in positions dealing with policy, law enforcement, or the justice system, when confronted with literally video after video after video of members of the black community getting shot, can possibly not see how fucked up it is. Hot Fuzz also trades in the kind of casual homophobia we’re used to seeing from bromance comedies, especially when Danny invites Angel into his flat for beers and police action films. This also presents the moment I like to call Peak Bro Vulnerability, wherein Angel confesses that he can’t “switch off”—he lives and breathes his work 24 hours a day. This is really the only personal thing we learn about Nicholas, and his struggle to overcome his own seriousness of purpose, Captain Picard-like, is really the only kind of worthwhile character development that happens in the movie. My own privilege acknowledged, I can relate somewhat to this challenge. Like Nicholas, I struggle at times to relax, to be spontaneous, and to adapt to the ever-changing flow of unknown situations. This may not sound like much, but inflexibility at precisely the wrong moment can have (or eventually lead to) disastrous consequences. In my case, the price of not being able to switch off was the death of a friendship that had grown emotionally intimate. Nicholas suffers no such lasting consequence. By movie’s end Danny, having won some measure of Bro Devotion from Nicholas, takes on some of Nicholas’ sense of professional responsibility, while Nicholas learns to soften his shell, in accordance with the Precepts of the Bromance, which state that Bro the First shall learn of the ways of Bro the Second, and vice versa.
But I also found myself reading Angel’s ceaseless devotion to duty in a more topical light. In context of the last decade, which has seen the rise of the so-called “gig economy,” the continued erosion of work-life balance and the twisted cultural fetish that seems to have emerged around “leaders,” “doers,” “makers,” “innovators,” and those who don’t “switch off” in pursuit of their goals, Nicholas’ problem doesn’t sound quite so innocuous.
That aside, Hot Fuzz holds up remarkably well ten years later. Oh sure, it dates itself in any number of ways, starting with Nicholas Angel watching in exasperation as the signal bars on his monochrome, backlit LCD phone screen disappear one by one. (This was still the era of flip phones, folks!) But I can still recommend it to anyone with a hankering for a hefty dose of mental self-flagellation with their comedy—and isn’t that most of us? I thought so.
Child vomit! Aisle 6. Yaaarrrp.
Free-Floating Thoughts (Because Those are Still a Thing, Right?)
– I’m nerdily amused by an ice cream treat that shares its name with a 17th-century Italian early baroque instrument, the cornetto, which is rather like a massively bent oboe, except it lacks metal keys and has more in common with a trumpet. Being a cornetto virtuoso either makes you like a 17th-century Miles Davis—or like a 17th-century Kenny G. Watch a cornetto and a violin (and oh yeah, singers) shred on Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torna:
Danny’s Cornetto, on the other hand, looks roughly like what we know in this country as a Drumstick cone. And I’m just realizing that packaged ice cream treat names are really weird.
– You think a swan being Sandford’s most wanted is cute, don’t you? Perhaps you think a nesting swan is even cuter. But those fuckers are vicious. File Under: Things I Learned at the Boston Common.
– With the news of a short follow-up to Love Actually in the offing, I continue to marvel at how fruitful the particularly British comedic formula of 1) lots of recognizable actors in roles large and small, and 2) an equal number of cameos, often self-referential, continues to prove.