Chekhov’s Gun: The Brilliant Films of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov uttered those words nearly a century ago, and in my opinion, there is truly nothing better in the world of cinema than watching a great movie that is absolutely cohesive and unified in all of its elements — nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary.

Let’s rewind a couple of years. 2007. I had just seen Hot Fuzz. My friends, like most people, were all talking about how funny it was and how epic the final act was. My first thought? How incredibly tight the script was. Yes, in my estimation, Hot Fuzz is perhaps the perfect example of what Chekhov was talking about all those years ago.

I recently went back and re-watched both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg), and no matter how many times I watch these movies, I am still blown away by the total completeness of their scripts. Nearly every single prop — and more impressively, nearly every single line of dialogue — becomes an important piece of information later in the movie. There are rarely any one-off jokes in either film — everything comes back a second time, and it is hilarious, glorious, and really awesome.

Nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary.

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead. Great movie.

Shaun of the Dead. Great movie.

The most obvious (and blatant) use of the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle is the Winchester rifle that is hanging behind the bar in The Winchester Pub. During the first act, Shaun and Ed argue about whether the gun is real (as an extension of their argument as to whether or not the bartender is in the Mafia, when Ed is making up sordid back stories for the pub patrons). We get our answer during the third act, of course, when the gang is desperate for weapons and ends up using the very real gun to fend off the zombie horde.

Other recurring elements include:

  • “You’ve got red on you.” The first couple of times the line is said it’s about red ink. Later, it’s zombie blood.
  • The flowers for Shaun’s mother. When Shaun tosses them in the trash outside The Winchester after splitting up with Liz, you assume that’s the last we’d see of the flowers. Not in this film, however, as Shaun’s mother ends up finding her flowers as the group enters the pub.
  • Shaun and Ed playing the game Timesplitters together. Even when not playing multiplayer, the two work as a cohesive unit, providing advice as to where to look (“top left!”), when to reload, etc. This dynamic returns during the shootout in the pub, when Shaun asks for somebody to simplify the directions being given to him.
  • Ed’s penchant for not closing the front door. The first couple of times it is mentioned, it’s to point out how terrible of a roommate Ed is. Of course, how do the zombies get into their home? Because Ed left the door open.
  • Ed adding to an emotional scene by saying “I’m sorry” — followed by the admission that it’s because he just let loose a nasty fart.
  • The jukebox always being stuck on random.

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz. Great movie.

Hot Fuzz. Great movie.

When penning this script for Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg pulled out all of the stops. Just like in Shaun of the Dead, they’ve included a really obvious example — this time, it’s a pair of swords hanging on the lobby wall of Angel’s hotel. While it’s not as blatantly pointed out as the Winchester rifle in the pub (it’s almost a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment), the fact of the matter is, during the final shootout sequence, what type of weapon does the hotel manager use against Angel? If you guessed a sword, you’re right.

Other recurring elements include:

  • When asking what’s it like to be a big city cop, Danny asks Angel if he has ever shot two guns at the same time, shot a gun while jumping in the air, shot a gun during a car chase, etc. Naturally, all of these things happen to Danny and Angel during the climax of the film.
  • When questioning Angel’s insistence of wearing body armour, his fellow officers tell him that “nobody’s going to stab you … not a member of the public, anyway.” It should come as no surprise then that when Angel does get stabbed, it’s by his partner, Danny.
  • The Andys warn Angel that “everybody and their mom is packing around here”, including farmers and farmers’ moms. Not only does everybody in town whip out pistols and rifles during the final showdown, but the very first person to point a gun at Angel is, of course, a farmer’s mom.
  • When Angel meets the members of the NWA for the first time, one of them comments on his police background, saying, “I hear you’re quite the marksman. Perhaps you’d like to join us for a shoot one day?” How prophetic.
  • Similar to a scene in Shaun of the Dead, Danny makes up crazy back stories for the people they drive past along the main street. About one man, Angel asks why he’s wearing such a big coat. Danny says it’s because “he’s hiding something.” We’ll find out in the third act that he’s been hiding a gun underneath his coat the entire time.
  • The Andys ask Angel if he wants them to interrogate every person in the phone book, starting with Aaron A. Aaronson. It’s not just a sarcastic joke, however. Near the end of the movie, Angel has a brief run-in with a kid by the name of Aaron A. Aaronson.
  • The Point Break / Bad Boys references.
  • Danny’s fake blood / exploding ketchup packet trick.
  • The missing swan.
  • The use of the weapons confiscated from the old man’s barn.

I’m sure if somebody were to watch the movie while making a detailed checklist, they would find that damn near everything mentioned or shown in the first half of Hot Fuzz comes back again during the second half — it’s that comprehensive, and as I said before, damn impressive.

With movies like these, I can’t help but smile. They are very well crafted, extremely funny, and quite simply a joy to watch. Well done, Wright and Pegg. I can’t wait to see how your next movie turns out.

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One Response

  1. You know another great movie with a tight script? Back to the Future. It’s taught in quite a few film classes, and jokes and incidental things happening early on end up getting story payoffs.

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