In a recent interview with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, the comedy trio and longtime friends compared themselves to R&B group, Destiny's Child. It may not seem to make much sense, but it's true in the sense that the members are more than capable of doing great work on their own; however the true magic really happens when they come back together. Doesn't seem so crazy now, does it? The World's End marks the conclusion (maybe??) of their beloved, pop culture-infused "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogy, and like its predecessors Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it's an entertaining, imminently quotable genre mash-up with surprising layers of depth.
If the first film used George Romero-esque zombies as a riff on middle-aged complacency, and Hot Fuzz a vehicle to literally blow up notions of civility, The World's End tackles another long-running theme: the dangers of living in the past. It's a darker, more adult film than the rest, and in it we see the continued evolution and growth of all involved. Pegg takes on his most mature role to date as Gary King, and as we see him reliving in glorious, hazy detail the greatest night of his youth in an epic pub crawl with his buddies, he appears to be just another in a long line of irresponsible louts. But as the flashback comes to a screeching, sudden halt, we see that there's something sad lurking behind the bravado. With little to live for and only his memories to cling to, Gary decides to round up the old gang and take another crack at the "Golden Mile"; one night, 12 pubs, 12 pints.
There's just one problem, and it's that all of his friends are fully-formed adults with lives and responsibilities, something Gary simply can't fathom. Peter (Eddie Marsan), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Andrew (Nick Frost) all have their doubts about Gary, along with an unhealthy amount of pent up childhood angst, but they agree to return to their sleepy little hometown for one last night of drinking, jokes, women, and as it turns out, an extraterrestrial threat.
What the boys discover in quite brutal fashion, is that time continues to soldier on without you. That you can never truly go back to the way things were, and even worse, that much of the people who populated your life in those nostalgic glory days don't care that you left. The message hits home early as the guys venture to one of their favorite haunts, only to discover that it's now some sanitized "Starbucked" pseudo-pub where the bartender doesn't remember their names. The opening half of the film is funny but mostly played straight for poignancy as Gary struggles with the realization that he's not all that important. Or that everybody in town has changed for the worse while he remains the same. It's the height of self-delusion, and everybody seems to recognize it but Gary, whose obnoxious attitude only makes his friends, in particular Andrew, want to leave him behind for good.
Wright has improved tremendously as a filmmaker since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a film which perhaps reveled too much in its comic book/video game adoration to connect on any emotional level. The World's End is practically the polar opposite, and like the other "Cornetto" films it uses the chosen genre to enhance and underline the core themes and reveal aspects of each character's personality. It's become one of the trilogy's defining attributes, one Wright and Pegg perfected before with the short-lived but brilliant sitcom, Spaced. But whereas the action was always fairly simple in the prior movies, Wright dreams up some truly complicated set pieces as the real menace emerges in the film. The highlight by far is a terrific bathroom brawl between the gang and their enemies, with Wright's free-flowing camera tracking every crunching blow, brutal decapitation (it's more violent than you'd think), and People's Elbow. Pegg and Frost have also grown in physicality, and they have fun with their stage fighting by utilizing a number of moves pulled right from the WWE. What had been up to this point a dramatic affair turns on a dime to special effects comedic spectacle, and the transition isn't quite as smooth as in the earlier films. At the same time, Wright is better at using the framework to set up major themes, best exemplified by the opening flashback that forecasts the future insanity. He's also better at keeping up the pace despite the story being broken up into twelve parts, or pubs, and with so many characters needing their moment to shine.
The dynamic between Frost and Pegg has always been the glue that kept these films together, and while we get moments of their impeccable chemistry here and there, it's muddled due to the significantly larger cast. We're told about rather than experience the rift between Gary and Andrew, while the feud between Gary and Steven for the attention of Pam (Rosamund Pike) is given considerably more weight. Yes, it's a lot of fun watching Gary blow this rivalry beyond proportion but there's no substitute for seeing more of Pegg and Frost. Pegg gets the juiciest role, of course, and he really has become a seasoned actor capable of more than just pratfalls and goofy accents. His Gary is similar in some respects to Shaun, an irresponsible man child incapable of moving forward, but we also see some of the darker edges to him; the alcohol, the loneliness, and the bitterness that make the character unique. He's also a total prick, and he's never really taken to task for it, even as his friends seem to forget and forgive all too easily. It's also nice to see Frost do something other than play Pegg's slob pal. He's considerably more restrained and buttoned up here, at least for a while until he goes into full on Hulk rage.
Critic screenings for the film were preceded by a personal plea to not give away any of the film's biggest secrets. That includes plot twists (of which there are many) and cameos (of which there are some notable ones). While that isn't so shocking, it was the source of the plea that makes it so interesting: Edgar Wright himself. There will be plenty of critics who will ignore his "Be a mate?" request and spoil much of what the film has to offer, but it's sad that Wright has to ask this in the first place. Fortunately, The World's End has so much going on that it rewards repeat viewings, and if something gets spoiled along the way there will be something new to take its place. It's rare that a conclusion as anticipated as this ever meets expectations, but fans of Frost, Pegg, and Wright will be more than pleased and dying for a reunion.