April is the cruelest month for movies: too late for last year's Oscar fare and too early for the big summer blockbusters (even if, like daylight-saving time and presidential campaigns, those seem to start earlier every season). This month's multiplex pickings were pretty wan until Hot Fuzz (Rogue Pictures), the British cop comedy that was a huge hit across the pond, opened on American screens last weekend. It's easy to be wary of Hot Fuzz at first, because genre parody has become such a tired, derivative form (think Epic Movie or Reno 911!), and really, do we need another dumb action movie to remind us how dumb action movies are? But if the filmmaker is Edgar Wright, who directed the 2004 zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead (and the funniest of the four fake trailers in Grindhouse), the answer is: Yes. We absolutely do.
Hot Fuzz doesn't have the compact perfection of Shaun of the Dead—it's a little long in spots—but it's such a vibrant goof, so full of love both for the movies and for its cast of ridiculous characters that you forgive it the odd soggy stretch. Simon Pegg, the choirboy-faced hero of Shaun of the Dead who also co-wrote both films with Wright, plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a by-the-book London cop whose arrest record is 400 percent better than anyone else's on the force. He excels at everything from speed chess to martial arts, and his prowess and dedication are making the rest of the team look bad. He's summoned by his superiors (Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy—every nook and cranny of this film is stuffed with Britain's best comic talent) and ordered to transfer to Sandford, a picturesque village where the closest thing to a public menace is the presence of underage patrons at the local pub. The bumbling police chief, Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), spends the day nibbling on pastry with his witless underlings, while Butterman's son Danny (Nick Frost), a dimwitted cop with a passion for Lethal Weapon and Point Break, tries to befriend the humorless, Type-A Sgt. Angel.
Quaint rural hamlets are to British cinema what white-picket-fence suburbs are to Hollywood, so you just know Sandford has a few skeletons in its closet (its name can't help but evoke Stepford, the too-perfect bedroom community of The Stepford Wives). Sure enough, Sandford turns out to be place where gruesome deaths—a young man decapitated by a church spire, a florist who falls on her own garden shears—are routinely written off as freak accidents. That is, until Nicholas Angel reports for duty and starts asking hard questions. Questions about the slick supermarket owner Simon Skinner (a gloriously unctuous Timothy Dalton) and a menacing figure who lurks around town subtly disguised as the Grim Reaper. Questions that just may get Angel killed—or at the very least allow him and Danny, who's become his de facto partner, to burst through a plate-glass window in slow motion, a gun in each hand, in the action-movie climax of Danny's dreams.
Hot Fuzz is like an Agatha Christie novel directed by Michael Bay and adapted for the screen by P.G. Wodehouse. The script is chockablock with absurd puns that somehow become funnier the more you think about them (pointing out a Sandford local who made his fortune off kitchen appliances, Danny observes, "There goes the fridge magnate"). Wright and Pegg don't care if they make you laugh with sight gags, verbal wit, pratfalls, or sheer stupidity—they just want to make you laugh, and even when they don't succeed, the density of jokes is such that you know there's always a good one just around the corner. But the screenplay doesn't coast lazily from laugh to laugh, like the loose bundles of skits that too often pass as comedy stateside. Ridiculous as Angel and Danny are, we truly care about their budding friendship—not least because of the chemistry between Pegg and his real-life buddy Nick Frost, who riff off each other like old vaudevillians.
In a running visual gag, Wright presents the mundane details of a cop's daily grind in the rapid-fire editing style of a Bruckheimer-esque action montage: Bang! Angel whips a pen from his pocket. Kazam! He fills out paperwork. These scenes are funny because they send up the clichés of the crime thriller, but there's also something weirdly moving about them. In the end, like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is both a parody of old movies and a parable of everyday life. The lowliest pub crawler can become a heroic vanquisher of zombies; the most banal job assignment can turn into the cops-and-robbers ride of your life. I can't wait to see what played-out genre the exuberant Wright and Pegg take on next.