For the third in their loosely connected ‘Cornetto trilogy’, director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have reunited many of the elements we’ve come to associate with the series: very British humour, offbeat action sequences and, most importantly, themes of friendship and camaraderie.
The World’s End is set primarily in Newton Haven, a town where, 20 years ago, Gary King (Pegg) and four of his friends finished school and attempted a 12-pint pub crawl, but never made it to the finish line. Four of them have moved on with their lives, but Gary is stuck in the past, and wants to reunite the old gang for another crack at their teenage dream. The others come along, mostly unwillingly, and trudge along in the wake of Gary’s obnoxious enthusiasm. It’s only when they inadvertently stumble upon an invading alien force that the stakes are raised and they have to battle something more pressing than their petty disagreements.
Pegg is really terrific as Gary. It’s a great role for him – one that allows him to play mostly against type – and is one of his best performances. Similarly Nick Frost, at least for part of the runtime, isn’t what we might expect. That the other three members of the gang – Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan – are a little sidelined is to be expected; they’re called the supporting cast for a reason. Rose Byrne, as the only prominent woman in the film, does a good job with a disappointingly small role. The World’s End at least has a female presence which, cameos aside, is something its apocalyptic brother This is the End was sorely lacking earlier this summer.
What’s pleasing is that, although Gary is the centre of the film, the ensemble really works. The supporting cast are all on good form, and crucially the script (co-written by Wright and Pegg) gives them dialogue that feels genuine and, later in the day, touching. Nostalgia is a big theme here, specifically the way in which that feeling can manifest itself in the form of what Bruce Springsteen called ‘glory days’ – those memories we cling to and inadvertently use to contextualise everything else. It’s to the film’s tremendous credit that after an hour and a half of sci-fi inflected comedy, the themes that have been bubbling underneath the surface are allowed to come out in an effective and still funny conclusion. There’s a final coda after the film’s climax that I could have done without, although it does include a funny nod to the trilogy’s namesake frozen snack.
It’s touching to see Pegg and Frost, great friends in real life, continue to make films in which their (fictional) friendships are tested and ultimately pull through. It may be familiar territory, but when the laughs come as frequently as they do here, any feeling of treading over old ground fades into nothing. There’s a lovely mix of wit, satire and bits of trashy humour in the script, as well as some moments of memorable slapstick. One of the biggest laughs this film elicited from me came from Nick Frost’s character simply walking out of a pub: a moment of brilliant physical comedy. There are also nods to sci-fi films past and, delightfully, an homage to Fawlty Towers, which sums up the film’s very British sense of humour.
The World’s End is, as was expected, a very different flavour of end of the world comedy than This is the End. It feels much tighter and sharper than that film (mainly as a result of Rogen and co’s semi-improvised performances) and hits more frequently on the laugh-o-meter. It’s also in possession of real heart – notably missing in its US equivalent – and even some pretty decent hand-to-hand action sequences; one in particular stands out, as Gary tries to fight while defending the remaining beer in his pint glass – a very Jackie Chan-esque bit of choreography. They’re both funny films, but The World’s End has more depth and a broader range of comedy hits.
If this is to be the end of the collaboration between these three filmmaking friends, it’s a shame to see them go, but also a pleasure to see them doing it on such a high note. This is the most consistently funny film in the trilogy, and its themes still come across strongly. It lacks the g enre-blending cleverness of Shaun of the Dead, and for that reason some may still nail their colours to that film’s mast, but this is the high point in the trilogy for me.