As Roger Ebert’s review of Dirty Harry points out, police movies often come with a hint of fascist sympathies in their DNA. By causing audiences to identify with an officer of the law who is willing to break the law he is paid to enforce, by having the officer’s enemies be racial minorities or other representations of societal “outsiders,” and by suggesting that the solution to the problems presented by these outsiders is their eradication or imprisonment, these films open themselves up to charges of fascist sentiment. The real-life ambiguities of crime, the desperate living conditions of most criminals, the possibility that police officers may abuse their authority: all of these are ignored in favor of a story where Good (in a person who represents Law and Order) destroys Evil (in a person who represents someone outside the popular definition of Normal, morally, racially, and/or socioeconomically), and the people in the theater cheer this destruction, and are encouraged, at least temporarily, to confuse it for truth. Of course, all this analysis overlooks one important characteristic of cop movies: they’re really fun to watch.
It should go without saying that the second film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy, Hot Fuzz, doesn’t forget the second part of this equation, but what is surprising is that it is aware of the first part, and knows how to turn this awareness into a commentary on the buddy-cop genre. The buddy-cop movie is essentially a less problematic version of the Dirty-Harry-style cop movie, because it’s twice as democratic. When Clint Eastwood is going after the law himself, he has to be completely right in order for the audience to get its Hollywood ending. He must be right about who the criminal is, his decision to kill rather than capture the criminal must be the right one, and his decision to forgo the Bill of Rights when dealing with the criminal must be right as well. The correct proportions of Law and Justice must be present in his every action in order for his authority in the movie to not come across as bloody-minded thuggishness. But the buddy-cop movie can split Law and Justice between two different characters, the by-the-book veteran (who’s likely never seen any real action) and the hothead rookie (but he gets results, dammit!) and let them spend the rest of the movie squabbling over the best way to get things done. Through their familiar but adversarial dialogue, a declaration becomes a debate, control turns into cooperation.
The first really interesting thing about Hot Fuzz is Pegg and Wright’s decision to initially meld the two halves of Dirty Harry back together in the form of Nicholas Angel. a by-the-books cop who gets results, dammit! Angel doesn’t have Dirty Harry’s contempt for due process, but then this is 2006, not 1971, and it’s England, not America. Angel is probably the Brits’ ideal of a cop, a man who knows how to use a gun but chooses not to wear one, who can subdue suspects with a notepad as easily as a weapon, who can lead a SWAT team into dangerous territory and truly believe he’s just doing his job. Angel is not only so good that the London office farms him out to the countryside before his record prove a humiliation to the rest of the force, he’s so good that it’s not immediately apparent what he’s doing in a buddy-cop film: what does he need a buddy for?
The second wrench thrown into the works is the setting: rather than being the hotbed of criminal activity found in London, Angel’s new country surroundings seem criminally overstaffed with the five policeman that are already there when he arrives. The town is known for its rustic quaintness, and the chief police activity seems to involve mollifying the Neighborhood Watch Program(me?), whose members become apoplectic at the sight of anything that appears to threaten said rustic quaintness. The only neighborhood watch meeting Nicholas attends is a broad send-up of small-town attitudes, as the members try to gang-press him into contributing to small community projects, and have themselves a good laugh at his big-city epistemological skepticism. “You’re an agnostic, then? I think I have a cream for tha’!”
Every cop movie reassures its audience of two things: 1) Evil in society is capable of being discovered, and (2) capable of being removed and destroyed, the way one would remove a tumor from an otherwise healthy body. The initial crime that Nicholas begins to uncover would fit into any normal buddy-cop movie or Lee Child novel, a twisty maze of intimidation, conspiracy, codes hidden in misspelled headlines, and a land dispute over a bypass (in what I really hope was a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Being a good cop even by movie-cop standards, Angel solves the case in about two-thirds the time it takes a normal movie to run through the paces, only to discover that the story he has stitched together is incorrect. Pegg and Wright take the central myth of police movies and flip it on its head: this is no tale of a mad grocer killing his fellow townspeople for personal financial gain, a black mark on society that can be quickly and painlessly removed to keep it from spreading. Instead, it is part of a larger conspiracy by the neighborhood watch to keep the town’s rural quaintness intact by killing off undesirable elements as they appear. Even the chief of police is in on it. The evil that Nicholas Angel is required to eradicate is inseparable from the very fabric of the society it is his duty to protect. In their own understated way, Pegg and Wright are suggesting that the justice we are used to seeing meted out in a neat two hours at a movie theater is not nearly as easy an undertaking as the movies make it seem. In the real world, there are shades of gray, and evil that runs far deeper than the average Lethal Weapon screenplay.
The reason Nicholas doesn’t realize this, seeing evil as a rogue element to be excised rather than a collective belief that has compromised the foundations of the town itself, is because he holds himself apart from the town, living in a hotel and refusing to engage with the populace any more than is strictly necessary in the duties of his job. This is the fatal flaw that requires a complementary partner to squabble with, and such a partner is present in the form of Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman, the police chief’s son, who gets all his ideas about being a police officer from cop movies, but knows the town and each of the personalities within it. It is the town’s implicit trust in Danny that lets him fake Angel’s death at a crucial moment in the film, and Danny’s knowledge of the town proves useful in the final obligatory gunfight that sets everything right (as gunfights tend to do in buddy-cop movies). The importance of Danny’s character to the plot reinforces the flaw in Nicholas’s belief that he can, nay, should hold himself apart from the people he protects: Pegg and Wright seem to be saying that society has deep, systemic problems, but you cannot solve those problems while holding yourself apart from society; you must familiarize yourself with that which you feel needs to be fixed.
It’s essentially the same values of collectivism and cooperation that are at the bottom of every buddy-cop movie, the belief that, whatever our differences, we can learn to get along, and in doing so will become a more effective unit. And Hot Fuzz is, at the bottom, a buddy-cop comedy, one in which the bad guys are rounded up after a gunfight, order is restored, and the two cops at the center learn valuable lessons about themselves…and each other. But the movie’s willingness to briefly step beyond its own premise and imagine a world which can’t be set right by brute application of police force, a world that requires participation more than censure, sets Hot Fuzz far ahead of nearly all the movies it is sending up. This is what satire looks like when it’s done right.