In Shaun of the Dead (2004), Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg fused middle-class English suburban angst and zombie carnage. Some critics dubbed it a spoof of living-dead movies: a scandalous misreading. Wright and Pegg were aiming higher, using the living dead to spoof the English capacity for blotting out the bleeding obvious. I especially relished the hero’s meek, dotty mother (Penelope Wilton), who neglects to tell her son about her bite from a highly contagious ghoul until she’s about to transform into a ferocious zombie cannibal: “I didn’t want to be a bother.”
Now Wright and Pegg have collaborated on Hot Fuzz, in which a quaint olde English hamlet (clucking flower-shop lady, hearty vicar, etc.) becomes the setting for a splattery, over-the-top Jerry Bruckheimer–style buddy action picture. The hero, Nicholas Angel (Pegg), is a humorless law-and-order cop who’s bounced out of London for making too many arrests. Although there’s little to do in wee Sandford (a finalist for the title of England’s most picturesque village), Angel begins to get a creepy, Wicker Man vibe. When the doddering old police chief (Jim Broadbent) shrugs off a series of beheadings, squashings, and impalings (“Accidents!”), the cop decides to take the law into his own hands. It’s lucky the fat drunken constable (Nick Frost, Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead sidekick) has a handy DVD of Bad Boys II to demonstrate how these things should be done.
The English have a wellspring of comedy that will never be exhausted: the combination of bestial urges and excellent manners. Tweedy pensioners suddenly wield massive artillery—and, as in Shaun, the mayhem is shockingly graphic, which helps to keep the slapstick from getting too comfy. The climax lampoons the work of overfunded action auteurs while still delivering the goods. Stir this with your pinkie, motherf---er!
Hot Fuzz is fun, and it’s nice to see all the English character actors who aren’t busy in Harry Potter films, but it lacks its predecessor’s freshness. Small-town English Fascism has been spoofed at least as far back as The Avengers, and the hero’s odyssey doesn’t have that archetypal Joseph Campbell kick. The ramshackle Shaun of the Dead was held together by more than just gags. It was, at heart, the story of a child-man who gets the courage to grow up—to take responsibility for his life, commit to a woman, and make peace with his mother. That he could do this and still get to blow off the top of her head with a shotgun—that’s the magic of movies.
Speaking of bestial urges and good manners, Anthony Hopkins is back with his saturnine Hannibal Lecter shtick (this time he has a brogue) in the pretty-good courtroom nail-biter Fracture. He plays Ted Crawford, an aeronautics magnate with a genius for constructing Rube Goldberg machines—a gift that comes in handy when he contrives to shoot his philandering wife (Embeth Davidtz), confess to the crime, yet be virtually impossible to convict. How he loves taunting the sleazy, hotshot young prosecutor, Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), who’s about to leave for a lucrative job defending corporate cheats—but who can’t quite nail this last case down. This is one of those conversion melodramas in which the hero can’t win until he discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat, there isn’t a single original note.
What makes Fracture hum is the way Hopkins bares his teeth, twitches his nostrils, and trains his shiny pinprick Lecter eyes on his co-star. What can Gosling do against this shameless scene-stealer? He can get all Edward Norton Methody—but we know from Red Dragon that that won’t work. He can go the other way, chew a little scenery himself, meet ham with ham—but no one wins an overacting contest against Anthony Hopkins. Ah, but Gosling is a smart guy, with a marvelous sense of proportion. He knows that Crawford is supposed to walk all over the arrogant charmer Willy, so he sits back and lets the scenes be stolen—to the point where we go, “Wake up, you dick! Go get him!” It helps, of course, that we can’t take our eyes off Gosling even when he appears to be doing little. I like Hopkins, but I’ve seen all his tricks. What’s up Gosling’s sleeve?
If Psycho and Peeping Tom are the seminal killer-as-voyeur movies, Vacancy is the nasty little runt offspring with no other purpose in life but to gnaw on you. This it does uncommonly well. You’ll be thrilled to know that today’s Norman Bates isn’t just a solitary freak. He has cameras everywhere, accomplices, and happy consumers for his snuff films. Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play a couple on the verge of divorcing who end up in a seedy motel run by folksy-twitchy Frank Whaley—and let me tell you, if your marriage is in trouble, skip the therapist and find a psycho. Nothing brings people together faster. The Hungarian director, Nimród Antal, made a dazzlingly unpleasant subway thriller called Kontroll, and he’s a master of destabilizing perspectives and jack-in-the-box scares that actually scare you. Alas, that’s what horror is about these days: building the better audience trap.