An amazing cast manages to make light of one of the most monstrous periods in world history.
SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free because it’s history)
It’s 1953, the Cold War is on, and the USSR is run by Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). Everyone is afraid for their lives, and for good reason, as Stalin’s Interior Ministry Head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) constantly has hundreds or thousands of people abducted or brutally executed for crimes both real and imagined. When Stalin suddenly passes away from a stroke, Beria starts to scheme to seize control, as does Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi). They both try to gain support from the various members of the Council of Ministers, including the incompetent Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and the Party loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), the head of the military Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), as well as Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). If you’ve paid attention in history class, you can probably guess who won. If you didn’t, then this movie counts towards college credit.*
Comedy is tragedy plus time, supposedly. This film mostly relies on the theory that a massive tragedy, with enough time, will inherently become somewhat funny. Surprisingly, it actually seems to work. The movie doesn’t have traditional jokes or gags, instead just relying on the absurd performances of the cast and the crazy (and probably real) things that the characters do in the name of trying to fill the power vacuum left by Stalin. Part of why it works is that life in the USSR was kind of inherently insane, with everyone doing literally everything that Stalin or his close allies want, regardless of the feasibility. One (true) thing depicted during the film, for example, was the time that Stalin asked for a recording of a concert which had not been recorded, leading to a replaying of the concert.
The performances are pretty much all amazing, particularly at managing to make their characters seem funnier, and therefore less harmful, than their real-life counterparts. The exception is Beale’s Beria, who is too cruel and threatening to ever seem particularly funny. However, some of the scenes that involve his police force, the NKVD, manage to be darkly comical in a slapstick sort of way. The other characters are all pretty funny if only for their constant disconnects from reality that comes from living in a dictatorship. It helps that at no point during the movie does anyone attempt to use any accent other than their own, regardless of the fact that they’re playing Soviet leaders. Having Steve Buscemi say things like “I’m the peacemaker and I’ll f*ck over anyone who gets in my way” works so much better with his natural Brooklyn accent than a phony Russian one.
Honestly, if you didn’t see this movie while it was in theaters, you should really check it out now that it’s on Netflix. I think it’s both funny and perpetually relevant.
Children are the future, whether we want them or not.
Zombies! Well, technically, people infected by a special strain of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus which causes them to mindlessly try to infect any living tissue called “hungries,” but they’re zombies, people. The only hope for humanity is in the half-breed second generation hungries that have kept their ability to think, but still crave flesh mindlessly if it’s around. They can be pacified by a blocker gel that masks human scent, and then behave normally.
In England, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn “Give her a f*cking Oscar, please” Close) runs a facility that is trying to study the second generation children and develop a vaccine to the fungus that caused the zombies. The facility is supervised by Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) and the children are taught by Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). The top student is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a girl who appears to possess more creativity and intelligence than the other second-gen children. When the facility is breached, the group tries to make their way to a new base through a horde of zombies, with Melanie being humanity’s last hope.
So, some of you probably noticed from the description that this film sounds fairly similar to the video game The Last of Us, particularly the fact that the zombies were caused by the Ophiocordyceps fungus spreading to humans and that a young infected girl is our only hope. I won’t deny that there are a lot of similarities… to the point that we see a number of overgrown buildings in one shot that make me feel a lot like the setting of the game and that sneaking is how most of the characters avoid the zombies. However, it’s a completely different type of narrative playing out and let’s not pretend that most zombie films don’t steal settings or rules from other stories.
A big part of why The Girl With All The Gifts works is that the story is solid. It’s not just using zombies as a metaphor (although they are used that way, as most good zombie films do), it’s also telling a story of a child growing up in a world that seems to be without hope. Melanie is constantly looked down upon by almost everyone around her due to the fact that she is part zombie (and she can’t control her urges very well if they kick in), but she still tries to do her best to please those she cares about. There is a running debate in the film as to whether she is actually human or just a fungus that presents as human, and it clearly weighs on many of the characters. It adds an interesting question on the nature of humanity that is answered differently than you might expect.
The performances are also top-notch around the board. Glenn Close may not be in the kind of film that she usually thrives in, but she’s still a superb actress. I’ll acknowledge that I get a large amount of satisfaction from watching a seven-time Oscar nominee kill a zombie, as well. Paddy Considine’s performance is amazingly nuanced, despite the fact that he originally presents as a stock character. Gemma Arterton manages to similarly play a person who is managing, despite everything she witnesses, to treat Melanie like a human being. You can feel that she really loves the girl, but also that she knows the weight of the situation. Sennia Nanua is amazing in this, despite her young age. She manages to portray a bright, inquisitive, but also feral and ruthless child, depending on the scene. Just terrific acting all around.
Overall, if you’re a fan of Zombie movies, you probably need to watch this. I really thought it was well done.
We’re at my favorite. Yes, that’s right, out of the entire Cornetto Trilogy, this one is the one that I will re-watch most. Now, that’s not to say I don’t like the other two immensely, I love the hell out of them, but this is one of the most perfect action movie parodies out there while still being meaningful, intelligent, and freaking hilarious. The World’s Endimpacts me more on a personal level, Shaun of the Dead is funnier to me, but this one struck the balance that I think works best.
Based on feedback, I’m using my new format for movie reviews, so, if you want a full annotated summary of the film, go to the bottom and click the link.
PC Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is removed from the Metropolitan Police Service in London due to being so dedicated to his job that he makes all the other officers look bad. He’s also not particularly social or fun, due to constantly being “on duty,” which doesn’t help. Since firing him would draw attention, they instead promote him to Sergeant and transfer him to Sandford, Gloucestershire, a small village known for being peaceful and quaint.
When he arrives, he is partnered with PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), son of Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), the head of the local police service. Danny is a huge fan of action movies and is disappointed that most of police life, according to Angel, is paperwork and regulations. The two eventually start to bond with Danny showing Angel Point Break and Bad Boys II as examples of “proper action,” before finally becoming friends as they investigate cases together.
Meanwhile, a series of murders (shown to the audience but framed to the characters as accidents) start claiming members of the town, leading Angel to suspect there’s a serial killer. He eventually accuses local obviously evil guy Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton) of killing everyone as part of a real estate scheme, only for it to be revealed that Skinner clearly couldn’t have done it. He then theorizes that Skinner could have done it with help, since he employs much of the town, but Frank dismisses it as paranoia, because murders don’t happen in Sandford.
Nicholas returns to his hotel room, only to be ambushed by Lurch (Rory McCann), Skinner’s supermarket cart boy (trolley if you’re British). Angel fights him off and goes to confront Skinner, only to find out that most of the town, including Frank, are part of a “secret” society, the Neighborhood Watch Alliance. Even crazier, the murders weren’t part of a grand, logical scheme, but just based on thinking the people were annoying or inconvenient to have in the “Village of the Year.”
Danny helps Nicholas escape, but he comes back, armed to the teeth. Together with Danny and, later, the rest of the police force, Angel engages in a shootout that destroys much of the town and ends with everyone in the NWA in jail or dead. At the end of the film, Nicholas and Danny are still partners, now having fun being bad ass on the streets of Sandford.
Part of the reason why this movie is my favorite is… well, I’ll Venn Diagram it.
The first time I saw Shaun of the Dead, it was amazing. The first time I saw The World’s End, it was just good. The second time I saw Shaun of the Dead, it was much the same. The second time I saw The World’s End, it became one of my favorite films. Hot Fuzz started at amazing and moved into epic on repeat viewing.
Part of it is that the foreshadowing in this movie is more subtle and spread-out than in the other films, but, because it’s based on action movie clichés, you really already know what’s going to happen. There’s one sequence where Danny asks Angel about all of the “action” he’s had in London which lists all of the things that are going to happen during the final sequence, including shooting a gun into the air and going “Aaaargh” a la Point Break. There’s another sequence where Angel is identifying potential threats on the street that turns out to be accurate, even though it’s portrayed as being paranoid.
The foreshadowing is also combined with Wright’s wonderful use of recontextualized repetition (apparently the Trope is called Ironic Echoing), with most of the lines in the first act being repeated, or repeated with a slight variation, in the second or third act, including “Get a look at his arse/horse,” which is one of my favorite uses of regional dialect wordplay. Yes, there are others. Probably. The point is, I find the way they compare harmless and dire situations in dialogue to be hilarious. They discuss catching a serial killer and a swan in almost the exact same tone, compare Angel’s initial hazing with his moment of broken spirit, and compare a firefight with solving a crossword. The last one brings me to all of the brick jokes.
A brick joke is when you make a mediocre joke which later turns out to be the set-up for a bigger joke. If you want examples, Arrested Development is filled with them and I even pointed out that Bob Newhart once set-up the joke in one episode and paid it off in another series. This movie, similarly, sets up some goofy lines that later pay off into absolutely ridiculous scenes, ranging from the revelation that there IS an Aaron A. Aaronson living in the village (Angel thought that was a fake name to mock him) and that an armed farmer and his equally armed mother are the first people that Angel takes out when he comes back (having been told that everyone and his mother owns a gun in the countryside). Actually, most of the jokes that are made at Angel’s expense seem to later come true.
Similar to Shaun of the Dead, the movie does a lot of sharp, dramatic cuts accompanied by music to show Angel going through all of the boring parts of police work as opposed to the kind of action sequences that usually are associated with them. While Shaun of the Dead used it to draw comparisons between Shaun’s life and zombies, Hot Fuzz uses it to subvert the usual cop movie trait of ignoring the procedural parts of policework, which reminds us of Angel’s absolute rigidity about his policework. And that brings us to the big theme of the movie.
All three of the Cornetto Trilogy films are about the dangers of perpetual adolescence. In Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, it’s fairly obvious what the main characters are. Shaun’s given up on really living life and Gary has never done anything with his life. Nicholas Angel, however, is not an unsuccessful police officer, but an absolutely amazing one. He is dedicated to the law to an almost absurd degree and that’s the problem: he’s got nothing in his life except for his job.
It’s a very different kind of immaturity from Shaun or Gary, because Angel is actually doing exactly what he wants to do: Be an amazing police officer. It’s just that, in pursuit of it, he has never learned how to do anything else or have a real connection with any other human. He is just his job, not a real person. In existentialist terms, I guess he’d be avoiding engaged agency (if this is wrong, please correct me, it’s been a while). So, his journey is to discover that there is more to life than just being the thing you thought you wanted to be when you were five. You also have to enjoy life and the movie points out that one of the best ways to do that is to be a little bit less uptight and a little more immature. Having never really been connected to anyone, at the end of the movie, Nicholas actually does have a successful relationship, it’s just not a romantic one.
Just like in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, the main character is a reflection of the antagonist (Shaun: Zombies, Gary: Network), in this case the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, who, just as Nicholas is dedicated to policework to his own personal detriment, are dedicated to their cause of being “Village of the Year” to the detriment of the citizens. This is represented best by the fact that Nicholas constantly repeats idealisms like “the law is the law,” while the NWA constantly repeat “the greater good.” Both of these are unforgiving maxims, enforced with no regard to what might be more humane. They even show that most of the people that Nicholas arrested without considering being more lenient are subsequently murdered by the NWA. It’s a great way to highlight the protagonist’s flaws, by showing that a slightly more absurd version of the same flaw would lead to something horrifying. Granted, it’s also that Angel wants to be superlative through hard work and exceptionalism whereas the NWA wants to be superlative by eliminating all which would drag them down (and, for the record, based on how many fatal “accidents” people mention in the movie, they’re doing it more than Murder, She Wrote). Basically, Angel wants to make the trains on time, while the NWA will kill everyone that makes them late.
Similarly, Nicholas has wanted to maintain the same image of himself from when he was five and decided that he wanted to be a police officer. The town, likewise, appears frozen in the past, having a rustic aesthetic, even with an Apple computer from the 90s. They both have tried to maintain the image they had in the past, to the point that they strongly resist anything that would change it.
The music, too, deserves a nod, and it’s always wonderful to watch a director that understands that the soundtrack and the score are a big part of the film experience. Granted, as well as it’s done here, it does pale in comparison to Wright’s song use in Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Still, the songs are well used and they tie in thematically, something that adds a lot to the experience.
The movie really does blend style and substance perfectly, an amazing example of exactly what film can do as a medium. It’s not too artistic to be watchable without effort, but the more effort you put into watching it, the more it rewards you. Hell, until the third or fourth watching, I didn’t notice that almost everyone’s name in the village is actually a profession (Skinner, Cooper, Hatcher, Staker, Treacher, Blower, Draper, Wainwright, Cartwright), yet another way to mirror that Angel is just his job, while the fact that they’re all archaic professions reinforces the village’s frozen nature. I imagine the only reason “Butterman” isn’t a profession name is because Nick Frost named the character as a condition of doing the film.
Additionally, the posters in the background change throughout the film, indicating which characters replace the functions of others, or how the NWA is manipulating the population in subtle ways. There’s probably still stuff I’m missing. I even had to have someone point out to me that N.W.A. was also the band that did “Fuck tha Police,” a great hidden joke. Seriously, the amount of effort that must have gone into this movie is mind-boggling.
To summarize, I love this movie. Aside from maybe Ghostbusters, Pulp Fiction, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I watch annually, this is the movie I’ve probably re-watched the most. Since it came on Netflix, I’ve probably watched it half a dozen times just when I want something fun on in the background. I’m glad that Edgar Wright has moved past the Cornetto Trilogy, but these films will always have a special place in my heart.
I’m going to do the rest of his films, but I think I’m going to make a special page just for these three reviews.