Hot on the release of Wright’s ‘Baby Driver,’ we re-visit the director’s genre-embracing thematic trilogy that helped his career get moving!
“Very entertaining, but I think that you’ve been watching too many films.” – Hot Fuzz
Edgar Wright is a powerhouse of a filmmaker whose first feature films are not only incredibly polished, but also part of a formative thematic trilogy that he was assembling in order to say something to his audiences. Many people have been wowed by Wright’s beautiful movies, but when digging into the specifics of three of his pictures, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, the director forms an incredible statement about the inevitability of growing up that’s unlike anything else. No one has ever expressed the idea of accepting or rejecting adulthood in such a fascinating way before.
Also known as the “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy,” this unusual genre-embracing trilogy by Wright is crazily modeled after Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Each of these films, in addition to featuring Cornetto ice cream in some capacity, also celebrate a different genre that’s represented by a different Cornetto flavor, whether it’s a zombie flick, cop spectacle, or love letter to science fiction. Wright’s signature visual style, as well as the themes of perpetual adolescence and the individual against the collective, carry through each of these films, while also tying them together.
The first in this thematic trilogy is Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which is meant to represent the strawberry-flavored brand of Cornetto due to the film’s bloody, gory core. A red color palette is omnipresent throughout the picture, like in the car that Shaun uses, the color of his tie, or the signs in the background of scenes. Not to mention there’s the running gag line of “You’ve got red on you,” that adds even more to the film’s obsession with the color. Additionally, the film immediately attempts to ape and replicate the zombie genre by piping in a very Night of the Living Dead-esque soundtrack to help ground the audience and ease them into the horror genre. Shaun of the Dead successfully subverts the zombie genre in a number of delicious ways, but it’s saying even more on the topic of friendship and love, whether it’s between a man and a woman and a man and his best mate.
There are a lot of familiar faces from Spaced (Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s television series) that pop up here, but this is by no means meant to act as Spaced: The Movie. When the film begins it almost feels like it’s intentionally trying to remind viewers of Spaced. Simon Pegg’s Shaun finds himself in the midst of a break up that blindsides and reminds him of just how lost he is. As Shaun’s girlfriend pines for some spontaneity in their routine, Wright presents this similar story like he’s almost trying to be self-aware with it all. Yes, he knows he’s done this all before, but hey, get ready for him to blow all of this out of the water. Be patient.
Wright’s opening credits showcase people lost in their daily schedules and waking up for another day, with the whole thing cleverly resembling the body language of the living dead. Hell, it pushes the whole idea that humble 9 to 5-ers are modern day zombies. It’s a remarkably simple, yet effective introduction to Wright’s world. As the real zombies slowly begin to invade this façade, Wright has already visually prepared the audience for the ensuing onslaught.
Wright’s fascination with extreme close-ups and zooms a la Requiem for a Dream, colloquially known as the “hip-hop montage” style, began back in Spaced but the director also aggressively pushes his visual style here. Wright’s aesthetic comes in hard and quickly establishes a voice for himself. These are visual tricks that Wright’s still playing around with and he’s finding even more ways to have fun with them now. None of these moments ever feel derivative either, meaning that he’s found a way to do something that’s not too in your face, in spite of being incredibly stylized.
Behind all of these slick visual techniques, Shaun of the Dead is really just a basic relationship story and tale about a guy that needs to grow up. Yes, there are zombies, but it’s almost like none of that matters. It’s about Shaun getting his shit together and he somehow manages to use a zombie apocalypse as a distraction and coping tool to mature in the end. It’s poetic. The film also examines the idea of how certain friends can essentially hold you back in life and whether your old relationships can sometimes be negative and regressive behavior. This is something that Wright explores to an even more thorough degree in The World’s End, rather than the more amicable conclusion seen here where both Pegg and Frost man up, so to speak.
Shaun of the Dead intentionally plays with the audience regarding whether the weirdness that’s being encountered is just everyday life or actually the supernatural. When zombies do first reveal themselves, it’s done in another very inventive way—where the groans of a zombie are complimenting the bass beat of “White Night” as Pegg and Frost rock out, oblivious to the danger that’s twenty feet away from them. Drunk lumbering has never been so foreboding and ambiguous. In fact, this even becomes a plot point later on in the movie where Shaun and company evade and sneak through a pack of rabid zombies by pretending to act like them, a feat executed by ostensibly doing their best drunk impressions. The film plays with this parallel and then actually makes it a practical point of the narrative.
Wright uses an inspired tracking shot as Shaun moves from a convenience store on the corner to his home. Mass devastation is being depicted, yet Shaun’s caught up in his own personal disaster and oblivious to it all. It takes Shaun a comically long time to clue in to what’s going on, with the film wanting you to laugh at him all the while. However, the initial scene depicting a zombie’s death and retaliation instantly ramps up the violence and operates with the same efficient terror of anything that Romero or Fulci has put together. Wright even expertly frames Shaun through Zombie Mary’s gaping chest wound.
At one moment in the film, Shaun runs into a bizarro version of his team, aptly made up of Jessica Stevenson from Spaced, as well as a cavalcade of British sitcom staples (and other recurring Spaced faces). It’s a very surreal joke, but a great gag that hints at the larger, weirder sort of comedy that Wright’s interested in exploring. I mean, there’s even a running gag through these three films that involves Nick Frost running into a picket fence. By the time the set piece appears in World’s End, it’s actually earned the excitement. People are genuinely curious to see how this stupid joke is going to be subverted once again, and the moment does not disappoint. It makes for a weird, unnecessary, yet highly enjoyable running joke that manages to evolve each time it’s seen.
Music is obviously a touchstone of Edgar Wright’s filmography, so the scene where Shaun and Ed argue over which albums they should use to decapitate a zombie really says it all (“God save the Queen” is also pretty damn brilliant writing). It’s clear how much Wright loves music and how much a part of him it is. He even needs to have his characters making it a point of conversation (something that’s rampant in Baby Driver). The infamous “Don’t Stop Me Now” musical sequence is such a piece of work. Wright is always integrating music into his work in inspired ways, whether it’s diegetic or just in the film’s score, but this is still one of the best scenes that he’s put together. It’s such a fun triumph that’s quintessential Edgar Wright.
Shaun of the Dead concludes with maturity being reached by Shaun, albeit in quirky ways. Ed is still in the picture, plus the idea of him now being a zombie isn’t terribly far off from where he began. Some sort of harmony is found in this twisted new world, but it’s still a happy ending. It just might be one that has the world’s ultimate safety up in jeopardy.
Hot Fuzz, Wright’ next picture, would follow three years later in 2007. The film examines two police investigators (Pegg and Frost) who are hot on the trail of a nasty string of murders. Hot Fuzz sees Wright swinging towards action rather than horror this time around. One of the film’s taglines really perfectly carries the point home: “They’re bad boys. They’re die hards. They’re lethal weapons. They are…” This action film is trying to be every other action film. That being said, there’s such stylized violence going on here that Hot Fuzz might ultimately be bloodier than Shaun of the Dead. The film is really just Edgar Wright pulling the trigger on as many cop clichés as possible, creating a bloody, extravagant masterpiece in the process. Much of the core principles found within Shaun of the Dead are still present here, like the idea of being outnumbered against a powerful force. The film features the original blue colored Cornetto, representing the film’s cop focus, but the color code is evident all over the picture, like in Sgt. Angel’s shirt, police uniforms, or even caution signs.
Much like Shaun of the Dead’s genre-appropriate introduction, the extreme long shot that kicks off the movie makes it clear that form and style are going to be made fun of here. This is all strengthened by the brassy voiceover that plays over the scene, courtesy of Simon Pegg’s ridiculously named character, Sgt. Nicolas Angel. Hot Fuzz sets its sights on attacking the staples and archetypes of action films, specifically leaning into flashy directors like Michael Bay. While Hot Fuzz might put a number of these “mindless” films to task, there’s clearly also a fondness that’s present here in the same way that Shaun of the Dead reflects a love for zombie cinema. Wright also begins experimenting with sound effects from video games as aural signifiers for winning and losing. This becomes a technique of Wright’s that’s consistent throughout his career (there’s a well-placed Mario coin SFX in Baby Driver’s final trailer). Hot Fuzz is an appropriate place to test the waters with such an ambitious idea.
In a similar sense, Wright’s “hip-hop” editing style is truly out of control in this film (not to mention how the final shots of Angel and Danny speeding off to their next case could be straight out of Wright’s Baby Driver). So many of the jokes in this are dictated by precise timing and the way in which scenes transition into each other. Most scenes even use a wipe as a transition, creating a sense of urgency and the idea that things are continually moving and never actually stopping. There are moments so intricate that you may not even realize that a single second of film is being shown from eight different camera angles just to exploit the “Bayhem” style of filmmaking to its maximum potential. Gestures that would typically hold no weight at all like a cop doing paperwork or watering a plant are turned into tense set pieces just because the camerawork deems it necessary.
One scene that’s devoted to the chain of command on the police force quickly establishes the heightened, surreal universe that this film operates in. Hot Fuzz’s tempo is bonkers and it basically doesn’t slow down. This is such an asset for the film and the right move for the highly anticipated follow-up to Shaun of the Dead. It’s also hard to not laugh at the insanely heightened violence that goes on in this film. There’s a serial killer about who’s gruesomely decapitating his victims, with each of his crime scenes being harder to stifle your laughter at then the next. Wright knows exactly how to navigate through this material. He has priests shouting out things like, “Stop this, please! Stop this mindless violence!” before whipping out twin revolvers and going nuts. Another moment at a medieval carnival features a spectacular death resulting from a falling pillar that is just so over the top and ridiculous. And while there might not be any death in it, the “Swan!” scene is also legendary just for the pure absurdism that it brings to the table.
The film impressively has Pegg’s Angel more or less solving the crime a little over half way into the film, leaving its second half to get especially crazy and really go off the rails to carry Wright’s point home. Wright explores the evolution of the idea that not only are there multiple killers, but that practically all of Sandford’s founders are in fact evil cult figures. They’re murdering the weak links in the village’s cultural community in a very Hannibal Lecter sort of way that feels straight from out of an urban legend. Sandford is genuinely trying to preserve the cultural integrity of itself, at whatever cost, and for “the greater good.” Curiously, Wright’s final film in the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, goes one step further with the idea of an entire community being sinister.
Hot Fuzz does still lean into a few of Wright’s earlier impulses, like how Pegg’s character is going through a break-up, much like in Spaced or Shaun of the Dead. Wright once more uses the new genre at hand as the means of filtering this material and making it feel new and different. The World’s End, for instance, has the confidence to shed this angle and experiment with new character dynamics. On this note, Wright gets a lot of mileage out of the contrasting police styles of Angel and Danny. It’s a beautiful moment in the film when Angel is at the bottom of the barrel and has hit his breaking point. It’s at this moment that the film truly goes bananas insane in its final half hour (Angel is literally riding a horse as he’s decked out in arsenal and patrolling the city). Once Angel dons the Bad Boys-ish glasses, all bets are off and he’s drop-kicking grannies and turning into a one-man wrecking squad against all of Sandford. It’s the perfect, cathartic conclusion that both the film, and Sgt. Angel, need.
It’s been said before that Charlie Kaufman’s ambitious film, Adaptation, is actually “written” by two people, Charlie and his fictitious brother, Donald. Hot Fuzz feels like it’s taking the same approach here. Nicolas Angel writes the more methodical first half of the movie, with the back-end embracing Danny’s chaotic sensibilities over Nick’s professionalism. It’s just insane that Point Break actually ends up becoming a huge plot point for the film and that Angel becomes the Michael Bay kind of cop that action films send up. On top of all of that, Hot Fuzz also uses actual footage from movies like Bad Boys II and Point Break to comment on what’s happening. This is yet another technique that Wright’s been playing with since his Spaced days, but in this film, it helps worlds bleed together even more.
This is a film that hits such unbelievable heights that by the end of things Angel is duking it out with the antagonist around a miniature village. It’s like the two are Godzilla and Mothra and they’re waging war over Japan. It’s a scene that turns these characters into superheroes for a brief, glorious moment.
The police officers within Hot Fuzz make a point of dropping cool catchphrases and one-liners as they pull off bad-ass police work. They even scold one another when failing to do so. However, when everything’s all said and done with, Angel comments upon how it’d be a great time to say something cool, but he’s got nothing to add. The work stands on its own. He’s done enough film aping in his actions that he doesn’t have to spout out a generic “I’ll be back.” He’s already proven himself. That, and Danny gets his Point Break moment, goddammit!
Edgar Wright would finally complete his long-gestating thematic trilogy with 2013’s The World’s End. This film features the green mint chocolate chip Cornetto, with the flavor symbolizing the “little green men” and sci-fi angle that the film plays with. All of the films in Wright’s trilogy deal with the concept of friendship and maturity, but The World’s End makes it its priority with the installment’s focus looking at a bunch of long-time friends reuniting to go on a pub crawl. This walk down memory lane is abruptly interrupted by some wildly inventive aliens as the film takes a total 180 while slamming the pedal down on the crazy. World’s End once more takes a very simple idea—the world actually ending as some friends try to drink at a pub called the World’s End—but finds great depth and value in the concept.
Right from the film’s opening, Wright tries to get people’s attention and show just how far he’s come as a filmmaker. Flashbacks of Gary King (Pegg) and company’s childhood is shot on era-appropriate film stock as Gary rattles off a monologue full of enthusiasm. It’s a lot of work for small rewards, but seeing just how much Wright throws into the aesthetics of this introduction says a lot. This isn’t just him playing some spooky music to evoke the horror genre like in Shaun of the Dead, but rather this is him digging deep into the ‘90s and carefully trying to replicate it. The Real World-esque intro cards for each of Gary’s crew are another great touch. The highly remixed track that kicks off the film fits the footage perfectly and is a great tool to begin this hectic, energized fever dream. There’s even a portion where Gary and company all get high that’s particularly impressive as the story is then presented through a number of paranoid polaroids. It’s a staggering intro that’s nearly five minutes long and is tasked with essentially not only setting up the premise of the film, but also the relationships between all of these characters. Hell, it even teases the impending alien invasion by showing their landing while Gary and Andy (Frost) gaze at the sun rise. It’s the very best sort of dramatic irony.
This whole introduction of fun and debauchery is gloriously undercut by the reveal that Gary is telling it at an AA meeting and that he’s really quite a mess. Others are questioning his “enlightening” story and suddenly this Hero’s Tale just seems like a sad man living in the past. This is a good opportunity to discuss how this film is really a showcase for Simon Pegg to wow everyone with his acting ability. Pegg was never the weak link in Wright’s previous efforts, but he truly goes above and beyond in this one. Pegg’s Gary King practically drives every scene forward. The way he’ll scream out phrases and jump into his next sentence is a marvel to watch and it always feels like Pegg is giving his all here. It’s almost exhausting to watch Gary operate around his lethargic friends as he attempts to get the gang back together. The way in which everyone carefully moves around him, almost trying to sniff out what his presence means, is also great work and slowly fills in the details between what’s really going on between these friends. The fact that their entire history is filtered through the selective memory of Gary, the unreliable narrator, is quite telling. As the film continues, the truth and reality that Gary has blissfully been ignoring, begin to creep in.
Pegg is pushed to go beyond his charming slacker persona with Gary being an individual that is slowly circling the drain but just too terrified to admit it. His constant fidgeting and his inability to slow down speak volumes for how scared and weak the guy actually is. He’s not the party animal that he’s trying to convince everyone that he is. It’s just that if he slows down and acknowledges the truth, it could kill him. Pegg is often contorting his face and letting the wordplay fly, but it’s in the moments where he’s still that you can see how hurt he is. The cracks and wrinkles begin to appear on his aging face. The World’s End is about growing up in a lot of ways, whether that’s through Pegg’s character who is deeply in denial, or Wright himself as a filmmaker who is leaving this thematic trilogy behind.
The eventual reveal that Gary is suicidal and that his arms are covered with self-harming wounds is a deeply dark moment—by far the most depressing out of all three of these films—but it’s a moment that works and shows you just how hard Pegg is working to sell all of this material. It’s a painful moment of realization, but one that also has you desperate to see Gary get better and be okay by the end of this. You finally understand just how much all of this means to him.
Wright also orchestrates a great role reversal for Pegg and Frost in the final film of their trilogy. The World’s End is arguably more of an ensemble film than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but it’s also exciting to see Frost’s Andy be the painfully responsible one here with Gary being the wild card that everyone is always worrying about. It’s thrilling to watch Pegg and Frost in these different sorts of roles, especially in the final outing of this trilogy.
The film is full of chaotic, stylized shots of beer being knocked back and slammed down, which actually happens to build tension and anxiety through all of this drinking. It’s crazy that simply shots of people drinking can be genuinely thrilling, especially when so much of it is going on in the picture. Wright takes this as a challenge to turn the mundane action into continually interesting set pieces.
Part of The World’s End charm is in how the film truly takes its time. Gary trying to get the gang re-assembled and all of the pieces in place is not a quick endeavor. There’s a very apprehensive tone to it all as Gary’s friends try to ditch him but are slowly taken into his orbit. In the same sense, the trajectory of the film feels very familiar and overdone, too. These friends are going to continue drinking, reminiscing about the past, and learning that maybe they’re not the same people that they were 20 years ago. Or maybe they are. This wouldn’t be a bad film, per se. It’d even be fitting for Wright and his oldest friends to create a nice, grounded film about friendship and closure. There’s a nice poetic roundness to that idea. But then Wright so, so gloriously pulls the rug out from everyone by having a bargoer’s head smash into blue goo as you realize, Oh no, this is going to be a very different movie indeed.
The World’s End patiently waits until it gets to the fourth pub in the 12-pub crawl—nearly 40 minutes into the movie—before it starts going insane and really showing off what’s going on. This patience is appreciated because not only is your guard effectively lowered by this point, but you also have a good feel for all of these characters and who they are by now. Then things turn into a really great drunken riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the town progressively gangs up on our heroes.
This seamless blend between science fiction and a coming of age story is handled perfectly, but the real thing to get excited about here is the stunning fight choreography that’s featured. It truly feels like Wright’s applying everything he learned from the incredible fight scenes in Scott Pilgrim and has channeled this into an incredible action film that’s masquerading as a pub comedy. The most impressive fight scenes from out of Wright’s career are all found in this film. Not only are these showdowns technical marvels to watch, but Wright also provides bizarre set pieces like a fight with a woman with two legs for arms who is malfunctioning all over the place.
Another fight towards the end of the film basically shows all-out warfare going on that continues to make these explosive battles interesting. For what it’s worth, this battle sees Gary trying to finish his pint while continually being thrown around and bombarded with hits. Wright’s shots literally show Gary’s beer leaving his pint glass as he does acrobatic moves, before it ultimately falls back in its home. All of these are just such fun fights.
Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World has a tendency to use people walking across the screen as moments for transition in the edits. It’s a technique that’s so natural that you almost don’t realize that an editing is being done. It’s like you blink and there’s a new shot, with your eyes doing the technical work of the camera. Wright’s doing so much work, but trying to make it all look so natural. This style is used in Scott Pilgrim to represent the “blah” mental state of everything blurring together for Scott (not to mention the immersive, interactive nature of gaming, an integral pillar of the film), but Wright refines that concept to even more precise degree here.
As the chaotic battles wind down and The World’s End approaches its ending, it finds a welcome degree of symmetry by calling back to its beginning. The opening speech that occurs between a young Gary and his principal is echoed back by him verbatim. It’s at this point this it’s revealed that this whole alien invasion—and the film itself—is essentially just a big parable for no one liking to be told what to do. Sure, life might not be perfect, but at least the mistakes being made are our own. Humans want to make their own mistakes rather than be given a harmony where they have no voice.
The final note that the film goes out on is a curious one as well as being a bit of a bummer. Gary and company’s rejection of the Network and their ways basically damns humanity and sends them back into the Dark Ages. Andy narrates how each of the cast has found happiness in their own ways within this new skewed reality, however, Gary seems to have regressed even further. Not only is he still in Newhaven, but he’s palled up with a bunch of blanks and is still trying to complete the Golden Mile. He might be a human, but he’s caught in a loop and lost in the past just as much as if he was replaced with a replicant. I suppose the difference here is that this is an erred existence that Gary has still chosen on his own. It might be a bleak note to go out on, but it’s at least one that’s Gary’s own doing. Regardless, this is still perhaps the most mature, contemplative ending of all three films, so perhaps it’s only appropriate that it’s the note that Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” go out on.
Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy” is an impeccably strong, varied thematic trilogy that is all about maturing and becoming a better version of yourself. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End all manage to smuggle relationship comedies into heavy genre numbers and they all stick the landing with their bizarre mash-ups. As a whole, these films help reinforce that as crazy as things may get, there are still fundamentals like friendship that are crucial and will break through in the end. All of these principles are present in Wright’s newest film, but no examples of this shine brighter than what Wright does in his Cornetto Trilogy. Not only did these films help Wright figure out what his strengths are in storytelling, but they would also show him how to refine his directorial skills to an unprecedented degree. There would be no Baby Driver without the Cornetto Trilogy, and for that, we should be forever grateful.
Now let’s have some ice cream and run into some fences.
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