Performance Check

Hot Fuzz and the Pursuit of Perfection

**Disclaimer: There will be discussion of Hot Fuzz in this article. If you haven’t seen the movie and wish to avoid spoilers, then you should skip this until you go watch the film – preferably right this minute**

Hot Fuzz just turned 10 years old last week. It’s hard to believe this amazing piece of work released a decade ago. Full disclosure – I think Edgar Wright is the best director currently working, so all of his work is amazing. For those of you who have missed this film, it is the second film in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – a collection of films examining becoming a real adult, finding your place in the world, and dealing with societal pressures. While I have talked about The World’s End at length, and Shaun of the Dead is the most popular, it’s Hot Fuzz that has resonated more with me as time has gone on. The more I run and play games, the more I find myself thinking of the film, and how crucial the central question of the film is to the characters that people create. Hot Fuzz asks “what does it mean to be the very best I can be?” As many tabletop characters are created to “become the very best, like no one ever was,” I can’t think of a better way to examine the answer than delving into this film.

Raistlin Away in Majere-itaville

Before I jump into Hot Fuzz, let’s talk about Raistlin Majere. Raistlin’s story arc across Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlance Legends was about power, and being the greatest wizard of all-time. He possessed magical ability, but felt his frail state – his name was derived from “wasting man” – held him back. When he underwent the Test at the Tower of Wizardry in Wayreth – still one of the cooler D&D interpretations of wizards IMO – it was revealed that it was really his reckless inhibition and naked ambition that were his downfall, rather than his physical infirmary. (The Conclave of Wizards were a bunch of dicks, though – I don’t think anyone is disputing that.) Preying upon his lust for power and respect, Fistandantilus – a lich and whatnot – brokered a deal with Raistlin, ultimately bargaining with Takhisis, AKA Totally-Not-Tiamat, to sustain his life and link them together.

Even becoming a bad-ass wizard who mastered a Dragon Orb, wielded the Staff of Magius, and had his own Tower of Wizardry in Palanthas was not enough. Raistlin ultimately knew Fistandantilus was a better wizard than him, as it was from him Raistlin drew power. Raistlin traveled through time to kill Fistandantilus and become him in the past, reliving the events of the past so that he might then time jump back to the future where he was now the greatest wizard of all time – having been giving himself power all along, I guess? Look, it’s time travel plot so it is what it is – and it’s not the thrust of this discussion. What’s important is that Raistlin took “being the best” to mean “having the most power” and then a step further to mean “defeated the gods and took my place amongst them.” It’s only when confronted with the culmination of the relationship with his brother and the realization that the world he rules over is one that cannot survive ambition that he is forced to reconsider his position. Does power in a vacuum actually mean anything? If he decides the save the world from himself, knowing that he could have conquered it, does that make him an even more powerful wizard in some ways? By ensuring his brother lives, he makes certain that his family line lives on and his legacy is spread throughout the world. Is that a better mark of power? If he lies to his nephew so that his nephew can have sexual relations with his daughter, is that actually power? (Seriously, these books went a little off the rails.) Anyway, it’s these basic questions of humanity that mark the climax of Raistlin’s arc. It’s not flinging spells and battling gods. It’s conversations between two brothers, solving family drama.

The Pursuit of Perfection

The continued pursuit of perfection is crucial to heroic tales. The eventual attainment can be seen as a payoff of the tasks the hero accomplished, or their downfall can be the result of hubris surrounding their own perceived perfections. Hot Fuzz begins the tale with the hero – Sergeant Nicholas Angel – being presented as the best police officer in all of London. In fact, he’s so good the other cops hate him and want him shipped off so he stops making them look bad. He’s spent his entire life becoming the best he could possibly be, only to be told that he needed to stop, because his best was too good. Through the eyes of others, we learn the people around him believe he can’t form human connections and he is incapable of not being a police officer. This is said in a way that it is obvious these people believe it is a deficiency. Angel’s response is to simply point out that the police were making obvious errors at the crime scene…which pisses them off further.

What’s incredible about Edgar Wright is the central conflict of the film is carried through this one line interaction. Even though there is a scene later that established the entire throughline of the film – something Wright is known to do – it’s this small exchange that immediately establishes the stakes. Does being good at one thing mean you are incapable of doing other things, and is it actually a bad thing to be exceptionally good at something? Sure, Angel has a hard time connecting with the emotional discussion his ex-girlfriend is trying to have with him, but the police are completely mishandling a murder. He might be seen as a busybody know-it-all, but that doesn’t make him wrong, does it?

Even after he’s transferred to a backwater town in Sandford – a crime-free village that regularly wins “Village of the Year” awards – he continues his diligent police work. At first, Angel works seemingly petty crimes – underage drinking, unlicensed firearms, and speeding. His work is kindly belittled by the police inspector – stating these crimes were harmless and it would be better if Angel just relaxed. This lackadaisical attitude of the police inspector continues as seemingly accidental deaths begin mounting, and Angel suspects foul play. Angel, determined to get to the bottom of things, continues his investigation – even though it costs him more than one attempt on his life as he gets closer to the truth under the surface in this quiet little town.

Relationships Matter

This is only one facet of Nicholas Angel’s journey. The other part of Angel’s journey is found in his relationship with his new partner, Danny Butterman – the inept son of Police Inspector Frank Butterman. Danny is a bad police officer, but he has an honest drive to be better. Being partnered with Angel is like a dream come true for him. Here’s someone who has seen action – Angel was stabbed through the hand while in London – and has a reputation as the best police constable that England has to offer. To Danny, Angel is perfect – and his excellent police work is something to aspire to, rather than shunt off because it makes him look worse. In fact, Danny consistently grills Angel to try and become a better police officer himself. He eats up every word of advice Angel gives him, and wants to reciprocate by sharing his idealized version of police officers with Angel – as if it to say “I believe you belong with these other heroes.” Danny also tries to get Angel accustomed to the citizens of Sandford, and the simple delights it has to offer – model village, the different stores, the eccentricities of the citizens, etc. As their relationship revolves, Angel loses his patience with Danny, and their argument echoes the argument with Angel’s ex-girlfriend earlier in the film – purposefully – but here we can see that both sides don’t mean what they are saying, and the outcome of the conversation is an honest and heartfelt apology from both sides.

The absolute best thing about this relationship is the way it elevates both parties. Nicholas Angel does indeed have a tough time with personal bonds and finding a way to fit in, and Danny Butterman is a terrible policeman who needs a mentor. The climax of the film pits the existing visions of perfection of both characters against them. Nicholas Angel is presented with a community that is as obsessed with making the village a safe and perfect place as he is, while Danny Butterman is offered the opportunity to have a hand in keeping the village idyllic. Angel is unable to accept this concept of “the greater good” and Butterman is forced to reckon with the uncomfortable legacy of his family. This is particularly difficult, as the actions of Frank Butterman are made due to the events that took his wife from him. It’s understandable, but not condonable. Ultimately, Angel and Danny work together and mesh their perfection to elevate the rest of their co-workers to their level and put an end to the horrific crimes occurring in Sandford. Neither is forced to give up something, but instead finds something they were missing in a different area of their lives.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Hot Fuzz offers a variety of types of perfection for characters to draw upon, and finds ways to offer them challenges:

  1. Occupational Perfection
  2. Social Perfection
  3. Societal Perfection

Nicholas Angel embodies the first type of perfection. He’s the head of his class at the academy, excels at all of the duties of his chosen profession, and has had a linear dream of participating in his profession. Once he achieves these things, he’s faced with the harsh realities of the world. Others recognize his perfection, but become jealous – not envious, like Danny – of his accomplishments. For Nicholas the question becomes “I know I am the best at doing the work, but does that mean I am the best at the job?” These are separate things entirely, as the duties of a job are often only a part of the job itself. For example, Conan might be the best warrior in the world, but does that mean he’s the best at being the warrior in your party? This is the sort of journey to consider for players that want their characters to be paragons and show the world they are the best. For Nicholas, it meant he had to become a leader, and recognize there was more to becoming the perfect police officer than being the best at police work. Warriors often become kings in fantasy stories for a reason, and exploring that journey at a personal level is something that can be incredibly rewarding for all parties. After all, Old King Conan is something many people have been wanting to see for a long time.

Danny Butterman, for all his myriad faults, has achieved social perfection. He’s the son of the Police Inspector, is well liked by members of the village, and has an innate understanding of the social norms of his area of influence. This is put on display when the plan of the Neighborhood Watch – revealed to be the villains – is explained. Angel’s version of the reasons behind the plan all make sense from a typical motivations perspective, but Danny’s knowledge of the people and his simple explanations are closer to the truths of their actions. Danny has achieved social perfection, but he’s sorely lacking in other areas of his life. Most importantly, Danny desires to be good at his job. He wants to achieve occupational perfection and achieve a level of respect that is not afforded to him, for all that he wants for nothing within his chosen society. This type of journey can be seen in the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo, Tasslehoff, and countless others. Challenging characters that want to attain social perfection is done through exhibiting that for all the benefits they enjoy, there are certain emotional responses they can will never receive without growing.

Societal perfection is about achieving the perfection of the environment around you, rather than perfecting your place within it. This is the sad fate of Police Inspector Frank Butterman. Frank lost his wife when she killed herself after her chances to win “Best Village of the Year” were ruined by drifters. Frank took it upon himself to ensure that such a thing would not only never happen again,but that Sandford would become the perfect, safest place to live. His version of the perfect society included complete protection from outsiders that were not invested in the well-being of the town. People moving to the town were fine – they were now part of this idyllic society – but travellers needed to move on or be dealt with. Frank’s fears are rooted in a real, tragic event, and so it’s easy to understand why he would feel the need to ensure his village was protected against such a thing ever happening again. From there, the rest of the villagers approaching him with their versions of the perfect society is only natural. If we are going to live in the perfect village, it has to be recognized as the perfect village by outside of the village, right? This type of perfection is easy to craft a tale around, and has been explored on less complex levels time and time again. The town and people are perfect…but have to sacrifice a young couple to their murderous tree god every year to ensure their existence! You know, that type of thing. Rarely do we get to see the nuances of decision making that lead to the first young couple being sacrificed in the way we get to see behind the scenes in Hot Fuzz. This type of perfection lends itself to being examined by characters who value law, order, society, and culture above all else. A paladin being forced to account for the deeds done to establish safe roads is a great story to put the character of the character to the test. This is an external type of perfection that allows characters to define what their internal type of perfection looks like.

In many ways, Hot Fuzz is answering one of the questions that plagued Raistlin up above, with a twist – is power in a vacuum truly power? Hot Fuzz instead asks, “is perfection in a vacuum truly perfection?” The answer from the film is a resounding “no.” Perfection is just one facet of a flawed existence, it says, and that’s ok. Without others to contextualize what your perfection means from an outside perspective, you can’t ever truly understand what it means from an internal perspective. It’s not the giving up of what you are good at, but rather the expansion of what you are good to bring that excellence to others and to reveal areas where you could be more excellent. It’s the understanding that perfection comes in many forms, and that there is almost more to do to refine yourself.

This sort of continued journey of the self is one that is crucial to long-running characters. Sure, you can be the best swordsman, but what then? Continue fighting until you get bested and are no longer at the top? What if you were to expand the definition of what being the best swordsman really meant? Is AJ Styles the best wrestler because he is the most technically proficient, or is John Cena the best wrestler because what he has done for the company and for children around the world? Is Raistlin the best wizard on Krynn because he has the most power, or is Par-Salian because he is willing to do what needs to be done in order to bring better understanding of life’s mysteries?

Exploring perfection is a way to bring continual growth to those characters who are on the way to achieving their initial goals. It’s a way to bridge the gap between stories and characters. It can be a complex, yet rewarding, endeavor. Luckily, we have the masterpiece Hot Fuzz to guide us.