Don't Call It a Spoof?
Simon Pegg, co-writer and star of Hot Fuzz, claims this movie and his last one, Shaun of the Dead, are not spoofs. This strikes me as funny, for I think Pegg, director/co-writer Edgar Wright, and co-star/comedy buddy Nick Frost are the new bright hopes for spoof comedy. These British wits are keeping the tradition of Mel Brooks and the old Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker gang alive, as well as raising the art of spoof in the process. So why is "spoof" such a dirty word to Pegg?
In one of his interviews, Pegg says "spoof" implies scorn and condescension, i.e. spoof movies make fun of their subjects in mean-spirited ways. I know where he's coming from, but I believe he's only partly right. It's really merely the current crop of spoofs that are cruel, blunt, and simplistic, led by the Scary Movie franchise and now devolving into the line of quickie "(insert genre here) Movie," like Date Movie or Epic Movie. Way back when, though, loving spoofs existed -- for instance, you couldn't call Young Frankenstein anything but.
Pegg and Wright are smart -- they understand that to do these comedies right, there must be a mix of ribbing and reverence for the genres. And the best way to communicate this is to actually write a story that stands on its own. This was definitely one of the big strengths of Shaun of the Dead, their homage to George Romero zombie flicks, and it's also true in Hot Fuzz, which turns out to be a valentine to the American action cop movie. The story they've written stands up well enough on its own as a comedic plot. It starts out as a goofy mystery, where Pegg's character, a strict and efficient London cop named Nicholas Angel, gets reassigned to a sleepy out-of-the-way village, only to happen upon a string of murders set up to look like accidents. Unfortunately for him, the villagers seem to accept that they're accidents and the police force there doesn't care enough to investigate further, their lead detectives rather comically dismissing anything that may look like evidence.
That's about all anyone should know before going into the movie. It then continues to do exactly what a film like this should do -- give you plot, give you characters, give you doses of its own homegrown humor, and pepper itself with references to other famous movies of its genre. What may strike an attentive viewer is just how well-written and well-timed the comedy is here. Not content with one-and-done scattershot comedy, Pegg and Wright plant gag bombs that will pay off later; they rely on selling the dialogue through the actors' delivery and performances; and Wright uses the medium at his disposal to manipulate point-of-view in order to sell numerous visual gags (one of his favorite methods is to set up a joke, then deliver its punchline by moving the camera to reveal something we couldn't see earlier -- the revelation itself is what's funny).
For the movie culture junkie, the references themselves take the enjoyment to another level. Not only are lines and scenes quoted, methods are borrowed and put to good use for both comedy and action. For instance, I'm pretty sure I spotted Hong Kong zoom techniques, and there are shout outs to a broad array of films that have come before, all which have something in common -- these are action movies and action techniques from which we derive pleasure at the level of primal instinct. Wright is aware of how manipulative the methods of action movies are, and how, even though we may denounce the lack of substance they contain, there's no doubt we get a rush when they're done right -- when the writing, the set-up, have locked us on the side and the cause of the good guys, and our release is given at the sight of explosions and righteous justice. Frankly, while cinematically quoting Michael Bay here, Wright out-does Bay himself, mainly because he understands the concepts of set-up and payoff better than Bay does.
With Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and his hilarious trailer in Grindhouse, Wright is fast becoming one of my favorite comedy directors. And thank goodness he and his partner in crime, Pegg, are around. These fellows are instilling an old art -- which is gasping for breath after being abused by people who wouldn't know funny if it hit them in the head -- with new life and potential. As far as comedies go, I think these movies are the best things out there. Just don't call them spoofs? No, please do call them spoofs -- the word is desperately in need of a good name again, and these are the guys to give it one.
(Released by Rogue Pictures and rated "R" for violent content including some graphic images, and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.