'Hot Fuzz': Lawn Order, By Kurt Loder

The "Shaun of the Dead" team takes on action movies. (Memo to Quentin: pay attention.) Also: 'Vacancy" and "The TV Set."

Sergeant Nicholas Angel has a problem, one I think we've all had. He's way too good at his job. As a top London cop, Angel (Simon Pegg) is fearsomely expert in all of the butt-kicker arts, from judo to weaponry to precision jaw-clenching. He's an unstoppable law-enforcement machine, with an arrest record that's 400-percent higher than anyone else's. Naturally, his brother officers hate him -- he's making them look bad. "You can't be the sheriff of London," says his enormously condescending boss (Bill Nighy), before breaking the news that Angel is to be reassigned to a new post in the faraway, leafy tranquility of Sandford, "the safest village in the country."

Angel is a professional, so he dutifully relocates. To his dismay, he quickly realizes that Sandford, with its cobbled town square and smothering coziness, is no place for a seasoned lawman -- its most felonious resident is a renegade swan. But Angel is a trained crime-stopper, and he's determined to find some crime to stop. Soon he's rousting beer-sodden teens from the local pub and busting a chubby drunk named Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who turns out to be a local cop himself, thanks to his dotty dad (Jim Broadbent), the chief of police.

Inevitably, Danny and Angel are soon teamed as partners. Danny, an action-movie buff who worships at the shrine of "Point Break," is thrilled -- to him, Angel is the personification of big-city cop action, a fantasy world in which bullets crowd the air like high-caliber locusts and the favored mode of public transport is the car chase. Angel advises Danny to banish such thoughts; amid gathering clouds of despair, he's pretty much banished them himself.

But as he begins training his outsider's eye more closely on the Sandford scene, unsettling patterns begin to emerge. True, there hasn't been a murder recorded in the town for 20 years. But there's certainly been no shortage of deaths, either -- most recently the skull-pulverizing demise of a troublesome journalist who happened to be standing in exactly the wrong spot one night when a large chunk of stone came plummeting down on him. "Have you ever wondered," Angel asks his sleepwalking colleagues, "why the crime rate is so low, and yet the accident rate is so high?"

No, they haven't. Nor have they paid much attention to the town's grinningly sinister supermarket magnate (Timothy Dalton) who says things like, "I'm sure if we bashed your head in, all sorts of secrets might come tumbling out." Or the local Neighborhood Watch group that likes to don dark robes for its late-night meetings, and is determined to win an upcoming "best village" competition by any means necessary. There's also an old geezer with a barn full of guns -- although he's actually okay: his lethal weaponry comes in very handy when a hooded slasher starts stalking the town, at which point it becomes clear that only Angel and Danny have the gumption to stop him.

Director Edgar Wright and his pals Pegg (who co-wrote the script) and Frost bring the same affectionate touch to this winning action satire that they applied to their first film, the left-field zombie hit, "Shaun of the Dead." "Hot Fuzz" doesn't have quite the fizz of delectable surprise that the previous picture did, and it's a little too long. But it's consistently funny -- there are very few moments that go by without firing off laugh lines. (Appalled by the villagers' abominable behavior, Angel berates them with straight-arrow indignation: "You should be ashamed, calling yourselves 'The Community That Cares'!")

Wright is especially adept at shorthand montage, and his tight editing gives the movie the comic punch of good blackout skits. Best of all, though, he and his partners don't use their deep knowledge of old action movies as an instrument of forced education for the audience. They satirize the knucklehead conventions of those old films -- the "Die Hard" and "Bad Boys" and "Beverly Hills Cop" pictures -- because they were dumb then and they're dumb now. But what the director and his two stars really love about those movies, and what they capture most rousingly, is their sheer exuberance -- the uncomplicated fun they provided. And it's even funnier in this silly new context. If there's anything more mindlessly exhilarating than seeing a gang of louts mowed down with a hail of bullets, it's seeing it done in a quaint village square. (Not to mention the very special delight of seeing a Hollywood-style little old lady being taken out with a flying kick to the face.)

Like "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" is distinguished by the sweetness of its parody. This is not the work of hyper-referencing film geeks, and there may be no more purely enjoyable movie now playing. Find a place that's playing it. Enjoy.

"Vacancy": Doom Service

Middle of the night, deserted mountain road, your car breaks down -- what do you do?

Well, if you're a resident of real life, you whip out your cell phone and call Triple-A. However, if you're stranded in a formulaic slasher movie like this one -- in which, of course, you can't get a cell-phone signal -- you follow the paint-by-numbers plot line back to that closed-for-the-night gas station you passed a while ago. And when you get there and discover that it's -- yep -- still closed, but that there's -- hey! -- a great big motel right next to it, lit up like the Fourth of July, you naturally think, yo, let's check in. (The gas station actually has a sign outside proclaiming it to be a place where "Every Day Is the Fourth of July" -- but let's not get bogged down in baffling details.)

David Fox (Luke Wilson, seeming slightly miscast as usual) and his wife, Amy (Kate Beckinsale), are the clueless couple marooned in this tiresomely archetypal setup. Perhaps they're preoccupied by their ceaseless bickering. ("Grow a penis," Amy mumbles, contemplating her drip of a husband as she utters one of the film's few good lines.) Still, you might think some sort of instant flight reflex would kick in when they enter the motel manager's office and hear bloodcurdling screams issuing from a back room. Or when the manager emerges and turns out to be a proto-nutcase named Mason (the reliably weird Frank Whaley), who claims that those gurgling shrieks they heard were emanating from a slasher video he happened to be watching. It's also a little unsettling that this ominous hostel has no other guests -- although that does allow Mason to offer them the bridal suite, at no additional charge. "It comes with a few extra perks," he says.

No lie. The room is of a cruddiness that might seem overdone to David Lynch. Among its many unattractions is a TV set that gives forth with naught but static. There is a collection of unlabeled videotapes on hand, though. David slips one in. It shows three terrified women being attacked by a trio of masked, knife-wielding maniacs. In a motel room. Soon they are dead twitching meat. David inserts another tape. A man and a woman are being hacked up by the same lunatics. In the same motel room. No, wait -- in this motel room. And what's that behind the air vent there -- a video camera? Uh oh.

"Vacancy" is yet another evocation of the hard-core gore-movie past. Horror films naturally feed off a tradition; ideally, new directors refresh the canon with twists and visions of their own. "Vacancy" isn't yet another teen-slasher exercise, but it's still pretty rote. The picture is vibrantly shot by Polish cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, and the director, Nimrࣃd Antal ("Kontroll"), is not without talent. But the film's mood of bloodbath dread has been a staple of the genre since Herschell Gordon Lewis set the tone for it 40-some years ago. And the movie's only really interesting element -- the creepy snuff videos -- is lifted from "Videodrome." When a movie is this schematic -- when it offers no surprises beyond ritual camera shocks ("Who's that at the window!") -- can there really be an audience that needs to see it? We'll see.

"The TV Set": Inside Job

This slight, funny movie is about as inside-TV as you can get without actually crawling into the set yourself. David Duchovny plays Mike Klein, a waveringly idealistic L.A. television producer who's trying to turn a story he's written -- a touching family saga based on a traumatic personal experience -- into a network pilot for what he hopes will become a series. Mike has a wife and a kid and a second one on the way, so he's trying hard to play the Hollywood game. He listens politely to stupid advice from all sides and watches with mounting alarm as everyone around him -- from hack directors and cynical gaffers to self-infatuated actors and a steel-trap network executive (played by Sigourney Weaver) -- conspires to turn his quality concept into a merde soufflé.

The movie is very knowing about the mechanics of series-TV production (the director, Jake Kasdan, once worked on "Freaks and Geeks"), and anyone connected to the industry will feel a frisson of familiar chagrin when Mike's choice for a male lead -- a New York stage actor -- is vetoed by network suits for being insufficiently cute; and again when the linchpin of his story -- a tragic death in the family -- is ruled out at the last minute as being "too depressing." ("We'll shoot around it.") All of the network executives swear allegiance to trailblazing creativity; but when their top series of the moment is a reality show called "Slut Wars" (brilliant -- why is this program not already airing?), we know where they'll stand when any real trailblazing threatens to be done. This movie is the answer to the eternal question: Why does network TV suck so much?

Kasdan stages scenes with a loose, cheerful spirit that suggests how much better TV itself might more often be if it weren't so in thrall to idiot focus groups and nervous, turf-protecting executives. And the movie has an unusually rich complement of appealing performances. Sigourney Weaver crawls all the way into the role of the soulless network honcho (she may be having too much fun, actually); and Justine Bateman is ripe perfection as Mike's smart, supportive wife. (She doesn't want her husband to sell out his talent to be a success, but with a second child on the way, she can't let him ignore the money that a greenlit pilot would bring in, either.) And Fran Kranz is thrillingly callow as a pretty-boy actor who thinks he's in the well-deserved fast lane to stardom, when he'll probably be lucky to be doing designer-underwear ads a year from now.

"The TV Set" has one unavoidable problem: It's such an inside job that anyone unfamiliar with the television business may be left in the dark. More problematic yet is the fact that the showbiz lowdown the movie seeks to impart was already drilled home, unforgettably, in Robert Altman's masterfully lurid 1992 film, "The Player." What that movie didn't have, however, was David Duchovny, who's one of the best reasons to see this one. Duchovny still has a sweet, tousled charm that's difficult to resist, and a rare facility for expressive understatement. His character here is a Hollywood pro who's increasingly unsure about how happy that fact should make him, and the actor lets you feel Mike's muted pain without pushing it at you. No doubt Duchovny is still stacking up residuals from his nine years on "The X-Files," but it'd be nice if he worked more, and got the more substantial roles his under-heralded skills justify. He's a big-screen talent.

Check out everything we've got on "Hot Fuzz,""Vacancy" and "The TV Set."

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