I don’t know who came up with the idea of the action-comedy, but that person deserves our entire scorn. The genre, which flourished in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was built around the idea that a comedy wasn’t really a movie unless it had a shoddily edited car chase at the end. This was the sort of thing where some film executive watched the turgid-ass war-hero bit from the end of Stripes and barked, “That’s great! More of that! Less of Bill Murray’s natural shithead charm!”
Action movies can be funny without losing any of their thrilling impact, and The Last Boy Scout, The Legend of Drunken Master, and Big Trouble in Little China are all the evidence you should need. In fact, a really good action movie probably should be funny—rest assured that everyone involved in the production of Commando knew that shit was hilarious. Meanwhile, comedies can play around with action-movie tropes and get some juice out of them; that happened in 48 Hrs. and in Pineapple Express, though it damn sure doesn’t happen that often. Even the straight-up action-movie spoof has worked at least a couple of times: I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and the original Naked Gun are fun movies. But when someone attempts to fuse the two genres together haphazardly, they tend to end up with shit like Dragnet or Kuffs or The Hard Way—movies that you might’ve loved as a kid, but emphatically do not hold up. The American version of the action-comedy fucked up Jackie Chan’s career for good once Rush Hour blew up, and I’m worried that it’ll do the same to Jason Statham now that Spy is blowing up. When it’s not crassly cynical studio cluelessness, it’s the arch arrogance that comes with directors who don’t really understand the way action movies work but just assume they can play around with the tropes anyway.
2007’s Hot Fuzz, the second movie in director Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, isn’t that. It’s a straight-up comedy, the first I’ve written up in this space. And for most of its runtime, it’s more concerned with shadowy conspiracies and with the relationship of its two leads, perpetual screen buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, than it is with any actual gun battles or fisticuffs. It arrives at its action-movie clichés in a cleverly organic way: Frost is obsessed with action movies, and when he meets icy badass London cop Pegg, he decides that this guy is the real-life equivalent of his onscreen heroes. But when ridiculous circumstances force Pegg to actually become that character, he does it, and he ultimately has fun with it. The action-movie stuff in the movie in an affectionate tribute: It uses those tropes as a framework for jokes, but doesn’t laugh at them, except maybe in a “holy shit, this stuff is awesome” type of way.
The movie’s references are a bit scattershot and unfocused. Early on, they have as much to do with slasher movies and with weird ’70s horror flicks like The Omen and The Wicker Man than anything else. Toward the end, though, it becomes a straight-up cop-movie shoot-’em-up, and it’s a pretty good one! Thanks to constant Bad Boys II references, it’s clear that Wright is especially interested in the Michael Bay ultra-exaggerated style, and he starts to use some of the same tricks that Bay loves. But I’d argue that Wright is actually a better action director, though that’s not really saying that much: He uses the frantic cutting that guys like Bay love, but you can still mostly tell what’s happening in his scenes. That’s more than you can say of any of the movies the characters in this movie idolize.
And Pegg throws himself into the supercop role impressively. He was playing hard against type, having built a career playing stammering and lovable fuckups. But even if we need an opening montage to tell us that he’s a badass, he occupies that space with panache: He squares his shoulders and glowers and looms. And when the movie eventually calls for him to shoot two guns while flying through the air, it doesn’t look believable, but it’s at least somewhat earned. Now that Pegg has shown up in actual action movies like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol as the stammering-likable-fuckup comic relief, it’s striking to go back and watch the scenes here where he tries out his best action-movie poses. What would a Mission Impossible movie look like with Pegg in the lead? Could he do this for real if he wanted to? Well, no. Almost certainly not. But if Hot Fuzz is any indication, he’d come closer than you might expect.
Hot Fuzz is a long goddamn way away from being a masterpiece in my opinion, even if our good friends at Kotaku might disagree. There’s a whole lot of structural cleverness in the script, but structural cleverness has never been enough to make a great movie. And as impressively staged as the action scenes might be, its constant references to other movies sometimes have the effect of reminding you of all the things those movies did better. Every time someone mentioned Point Break—and people in this movie mention Point Break all the fucking time—I found myself wishing I was watching Point Break instead. Still, this is a better comedy than most and a much better action movie than it had to be.
And actually, Wright has gotten better at staging action scenes since. 2013’s The World’s End, the last movie in the Carnetto trilogy, is probably the best, and some of its fistfights are honestly among the most impressive I’ve seen in an English-language studio movie in recent years. (Pegg himself Rock Bottoms someone’s head into a urinal, something I’ve yet to see the Rock attempt in a movie.) And for a while, Wright was all set to direct Marvel’s new Ant-Man movie before being bounced from the project; I’ll still probably see that movie, but Marvel fucked up there. There are very few people who can direct clever, unforced comedy and put together a no-shit action scene, and Wright is one of them.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Assault on Precinct 13 | Payback | The Good, the Bad, the Weird | The Professional | Supercop | The Man With the Iron Fists 2 | Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone| Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China |Sonatine |Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master