There is one scene in Shaun of the Dead that elevated the film from simply uproarious to my yearly Top 10 list. Early on, Simon Pegg's Shaun goes about a mind-numbing daybreak routine of exiting his home, walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, and entering a local market to purchase a drink, oblivious to those around him carrying about their own morning monotony. The next day, Shaun repeats this scenario but, despite traversing a swath of blood and severed limbs, does not see past the fog of his own insularity to notice that his fellow automatons have actually transformed into flesh-eating zombies.
There is no moment as satirically transcendent in Pegg and writer-director Edgar Wright's follow-up comedy Hot Fuzz, which means audiences will have to satisfy themselves with merely another hilarious demonstration of the Spaced troupe's neo-Pythonesque Brit wit. Pegg plays Nick Angel, a by-the-book bobby whose overachievement and high arrest rate make the rest of the London Police Service look so lousy that he is reassigned to the fictional 'burb of Sandford. There he finds a bucolic village with a feckless police department, led by a daft Jim Broadbent (whose comedic skills are arguably better than his dramatic acumen), that preoccupies itself mostly with scarfing down cake and chasing down wayward pets. However, Angel and his dimwitted new partner (Nick Frost, Pegg's longtime comic cohort) suspect more nefarious doings after a series of grisly "accidents" befall several citizens.
Copious bons mots and pop-culture references litter the screen, from buddy-cop films to Agatha Christie to even horror flicks like The Omen and The Wicker Man. Angel's reluctant departure from Sandford evokes Chinatown; his mounted return to wreak vengeance against the townsfolk simultaneously sends up Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter. There is also the checkered history of British comedians attempting to mine laughs from playing policemen—one almost envisions this film as both a take-off and finger in the eye of Cannon and Ball's ill-fated The Boys in Blue. Suffice it to say the laundry list of spoofed movies and television shows on Hot Fuzz's IMDb.com Web page is required reading. And, along with brief turns from Bill Nighy and Steve Coogan, watch for cameos by Peter Jackson as a homicidal Santa and a masked Cate Blanchett as Angel's estranged ex.
Wright, whose mock Britsploitation trailer Don't is currently playing during the intermission between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse double-bill, manages to integrate these disparate parts into a cohesive, intelligent whole. That said, Hot Fuzz's principal flaws are its excessive running time—at two hours, it is at least 20 minutes too long—and, ironically, its overemphasis on lampooning Hollywood crime actioners. It is hard to parody material that is already beyond parodying, so when Wright fashions an extended finale that recreates scenes from Point Break and Bad Boys II or replicates the visual gimcracks of Michael Bay and Tony Scott, it is difficult to divine where the setup ends and the punchline begins. —Neil Morris
The legal thriller isn't dead, it just isn't very thrilling any more. In Fracture, everyone seems bored, from the stars to the director to the screenplay, which fills every scene with quips from start to finish. Actually, at a recent advance screening, the one-liners got tons of laughs, which raises the possibility that this film might be more profitably marketed as a comedy.
But a dull thriller is what Fracture finally insists on being, as it takes an Agatha Christie-style locked room drama and updates it to modern-day Los Angeles. Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) is an aeronautics engineer prone to making elaborate wood-and-brass perpetual motion toys, resulting in many shots of glass balls rolling around.
Ted shoots his unfaithful wife (a barely used Embeth Davidtz), then manipulates the situation so that his confession and most of the evidence is inadmissible. This doesn't set well with prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), a hotshot who finds the increasingly complicated case interfering with his plans to jump ship to an upscale firm. Twists ensue.
To its credit, Fracture isn't concerned with placing the hero in false jeopardy or with extreme close-ups of gore. Unfortunately, this leaves it with a lot to pad out. The second act mostly consists of Gosling, who nicely acquits himself as a leading man here, running around looking for evidence. At one point, the film is reduced to him reciting "Oh, the places you'll go" in an Okie-accented voiceover.
Director Gregory Hoblit has made several above-average thrillers, including Primal Fear and Frequency, and at least makes an effort to give the film a more realistic, grounded look than most thrillers. But the screenplay is a tough nut to overcome. The mystery is somewhat clever, but the attempts to flesh out the characters feel more like piled-on clichés.
Sure, Hopkins is milking his Hannibal Lecter mind-game persona for all it's worth, but in his scenes with Gosling, there's a sense of wit and playfulness. (The film's R rating appears to be owed to the fact that Hopkins is allowed to drop some wonderfully profane one-liners at key moments of the film.) This isn't exactly a well-rounded character, but Hopkins has some fun with it.
Likewise, Gosling, one of the better young actors out there, is stuck with the thankless part of the career-oriented pretty boy who learns What's Really Important. However, he doesn't try to overplay the part with the hyper-intensity you'd expect from this type of role. His scenes with Hopkins sometimes transcend the cat-and-mouse material in the relaxed way that the actors play off each other. Still, when Hopkins is off the screen, the film drags through scene after scene depicting the agonized, evolving conscience of Gosling.
Fracture isn't horrible, but it tries way too hard to be clever, and as Spinal Tap once said, there's a thin line between clever and stupid. Due to the unimaginative exertions of screenwriters Daniel Pyne (the 2004 Manchurian Candidate) and Glenn Gers, Hopkins' character occasionally seems ludicrously psychic—at one point, he dials his office phone to taunt Gosling at the exact moment that he is snooping there. Considering that most jails have a pretty long line for the phone, he must have one hell of a sense of timing.
In addition to the other talented performers languishing in Fracture, David Strathairn is here as Gosling's boss. After years of earning plaudits for his work in low-budget dramas, culminating in Good Night, and Good Luck, it's understandable that Strathairn would take a couple of paycheck roles. But after Fracture—and last year's We Are Marshall—one hopes to see him again in good movies very soon. —Zack Smith