Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hot Fuzz -- The Greater Good

Co-writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg spoofed the zombie genre in the very funny Shaun of the Dead (2004). Here they've turned their sights on the popular Buddy Cop category (think Bad Boys, Lethal Weapon, etc). And they've delivered another very funny comedy, hilarious in sections.

As in Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright directs lead Simon Pegg, here playing Metropolitan Police Officer Nicholas Angel. Angel is a classic overachiever. He outperforms his colleagues; indeed, he has a 400% better arrest record than anyone. He is so good that he is making everyone else look bad. So, he is "promoted" to sergeant and sent away to the country, where he is no longer a problem for the London police. with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost, returning co-star from Shaun of the Dead), Nick finds Sandford, his new beat, a major change from London. With virtually no crime, this village has been "village of the year" for years. But soon accidents start to pile up. With a keen sense of "smell," Nick and Danny start to unravel a conspiracy. first act is a little slow, and there are numerous characters to introduce, including Danny's dad, Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent, who asked for a part in Pegg's next movie after seeing Shaun), and smarmy supermarket owner Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton, one-time James Bond). As the partnership between Danny and Nick develops, the comedy moves from first to second gear. At first they are the awkward odd couple, with Danny pestering Nick with oddball questions about police-work and guns: "Is it true that there's a point on a man's head where if you shoot it, it will blow up?" But as in buddy movies, this sets the scene for act 2, where the pair become real partners.

Once the "accidents" start occurring, the humor kicks into high gear. As in Shaun of the Dead and other British comedies (such as Monty Python's Meaning of Life or The Holy Grail), the violence is extremely gory and the language is filled with profanity. Blood spurts everywhere, bodies get cooked, decapitated heads show up center stage. Yet, there is a distinct air of levity throughout as the gore is clearly played in an over-the-top manner.

At one point, Danny, the chubby, beer-guzzling, cop-movie-watching partner, asks Nick, the strait-laced, juice-drinking one, if he has seen any of the classic American cop movies. But he hasn't, so Danny invites him in to his home for a beer and a pair of movies -- Bad Boys 2 and Point Break. This is an introduction to his world. More than this, Wright is setting up the movie for the spoofs that will come in the final act, including explicit quotes and scene duplications from these movies ("Ever fired your gun in the air and yelled, 'Aaaaaaah?' " from Point Break.) Hot Fuzz moves towards its climax, Nick discovers the conspiracy was something completely different than he had expected. So much for his hours of work spent in detective research. After escaping from the jaws of death, Nick returns to face down the village villains. In a scene pointedly similar to that from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Nick rides into town on horseback armed to the teeth. The shootout in the town, with Danny finally getting the chance to see action like that from the movies he fantasizes about, is absolutely hilarious. From here on, the third act is gorily side-splitting.

Hot Fuzz succeeds as a comedy, but also raises the philosophical issue of utilitarianism. The conspirators constantly echo the line, "for the greater good, the greater good." As they commit their murders, it is for this greater good, at least in their minds. But this is strictly utilitarian in thought: the moral worth or value of a thing or action is determined by its outcome, and what causes the most good is of the highest worth. This is regardless of what that action is. In this case, murder is endorsed because there is something of higher value that results from it. It is a quantitative or reductionistic approach to ethics. What brings the most happiness to the most people is morally right.

It is clear in Hot Fuzz that this utilitarian approach is wrong. This is what births the comedy. With no absolute moral value, no defined right or wrong, the higher value is simply that which the majority deem to be so. And from there it is a short step to condoning grisly murder. While the majority of the characters accept this ethic, Nick Angel, a self-confessed agnostic, declares to the village parson, "I may not be a man of God, Reverend, but I know right and I know wrong and I have the good grace to know which is which." He has a moral standard, although it is not evident where he gets this from.

As followers of Jesus, we get our standard from the Word of God, the Bible. This gives us clear right and wrong. And the presence of the Holy Spirit within us gives us the good grace to know right from wrong. Utilitarianism is an ethic that is generally at odds with Christian living. Indeed, rarely is "the greater good" a reason to detract from the morality and ethics found in Scripture.

Copyright © 2008, Martin Baggs

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