Although the final part of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s trilogy of films as writing partners that started with Shaun of the Dead and continued with Hot Fuzz, The World’s End feels like a vastly different movie, and for the most part it’s better for it. There’s a seriousness and sombre nature to this story of stunted adolescence that the other films had in spurts, but here it’s pretty front and centre, giving everything the feeling of… well, a finale. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t uproariously funny at times or missing a lot of fun and playful genre elements, but there’s a real sense of personal introspection going on here, whereas the previous films were mostly about having fun. It’s the little added oomph that might not make it the funniest of the trilogy, but certainly the most interesting one to think about.
Gary King (Simon Pegg) looks and acts like he’s stuck in 1990, the year of his high school graduation. He wears a ridiculous amount of jewellery, a neck to floor trenchcoat, and it looks like the mascara from his misguided youth spent listening to Jesus and the Mary Chain B-sides never quite washed off (if he even bathed at all). He’s a boorish lout who’s been in and out of rehab, but thinks he’s still the charming life of the party despite never once accomplishing anything of merit and constantly driving all of his best friends further and further away.
Gary, in a fit of nostalgia, manages to sweet talk his best mates from high school to help him finish the one thing he selfishly regrets he could never finish: the 12 pint Golden Mile pub crawl in their sleepy suburban hometown of Newton Haven. There’s Steven (Paddy Considine), a sweet, good natured contractor who was always the victim of Gary’s rigorous efforts to steal girls away. Oliver (Martin Freeman) has become an uptight, Bluetooth headset sporting real estate broker. Peter (Eddie Marsan) has become a mild mannered car salesman. Then there’s Andy Knightley (Nick Frost), Gary’s former best friend who wrestles constantly with his love and hate stemming from an incident that left Andy high, dry, and on the road to sobriety and adulthood that Gary can’t seem to find his way to. They start the night just fine, but a few pints in and quicker than you can say Westworld or Stepford Wives, it becomes apparent that something is incredibly amiss.
The only real problem with The World’s End is that unlike the genre elements that slowly crept into Shaun and Fuzz, the transition between a character based narrative and the more outlandish elements of the story comes as almost a snap decision here with very little warning. It’s kind of jarring and almost arbitrary feeling until it becomes clear that the sci-fi story elements aren’t the point at all here. They only serve to underline the real life or death stakes that were already there. It’s not another story about the boys trying to escape with their lives, but of friends who had already warned one of their own that he might not live through the weekend even without all the craziness. It’s about an awkward, pressing, and often hard to talk about issue that Gary now has another excuse to avoid and act irresponsibly towards because the group sees bigger problems.
Everyone except, Andy, that is, and therein lies the biggest and most welcome diversion from the previous films. Casting Frost against the franchise expectation in the straight man role and making Pegg the buffoonish live wire injects a lot of life into the story. Both men attack their roles with a certain amount of glee, stealing scenes from each other with a considerable amount of generosity on both their parts to cede to the man doing the better work. Their chemistry has never been better, and given their past track record it says a lot.
Pegg, to his immense credit, never plays Gary’s rampant alcoholism for laughs. He focuses on misplaced narcissism and idiotic behaviour instead. Whenever the topic of Gary’s drinking or his pathological lying about trivial manners is broached by anyone, Pegg makes the character recoil like a scolded, but still yelping dog. It’s hard to make a walking defence mechanism funny, but Pegg does precisely that, and he also makes the film a lot more thoughtful as a result. It’s like watching Malcom Lowry if he had grown up playing Atari and Nintendo all day before sadly realizing and ignoring that his life was a sham.
When put in opposition to someone like Andy, who has a very low tolerance for bullshit and a serious attitude towards the recovery process, Gary has no real ideological leg to stand on. Wright and company dance around the real rift in their relationship in the best possible way. Frost can be a great dramatic actor (especially in the BBC adaptation of Martin Amis’ Money, which is well worth seeking out after this), and he plays Andy’s frustrations like a tea kettle that’s been boiling for quite some time and is about to burst from the heat and pressure. He never really wanted to go, but deep down the love he always had for Gary compels him to tag along to keep things from getting worse. He’s been around Gary too long to know that he would ever listen to reason or logic, and when the duo and their closest friends are placed into a potential life or death situation, it only exacerbates things.
Wright and Pegg still maintain the same motif of heroes facing off against cultish villains bent on rampant destruction of personal liberties in the name of the greater good, but the emotional weight comes from a different place this time. If Shaun was about finding out what it means to love someone and Fuzz was about not being able to live without a support system, World’s End is actually about how crushing it can be to watch someone you love, laugh at/with, and sometimes admire destroy themselves in front of your eyes. To play such material for humour requires a feather touch and considerable wit, both of which are on display in spades here.
As a directorial effort, this also stands as Wright’s most well rounded work. It’s interesting to watch his progression as a filmmaker from Spaced until this point because there are few others who can readily be referenced as people who constantly learn new tricks that the can incorporate into their next film. The action set pieces are as ambitious here as anything in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and just as amusingly chaotic as anything from his previous work with Pegg and Frost. The foot chases that ensue between the pubs towards the end of the crawl (because they all don’t want to make it look like anything is wrong and Gary is too daft to actually put the lager down) look and feel exciting, but purposefully exhausting. An early brawl in a washroom involving the whole cast definitely suggests that despite the absence of guns and special camera tricks that Wright wanted to challenge himself while he upped his game.
He also makes the most of a stellar cast of returning faces from previous films. Freeman gets a few choice laughs as they guy who often gets turned to when something actually needs explaining in a rational manner. Rosamund Pike gets one of the best roles of her career as Oliver’s sister; the woman Gary pines for and keeps trying to shag in a washroom one last time, but is secretly loved by Steven. There’s also a lot to be said for Considine, who’s given a nicely beefed up role that’s essentially the third biggest character, as the kindest and sweetest guy of the bunch.
Regardless of the impending doom and harm about to befall the characters on their journey, it’s easy when placed in the hands of Wright and Pegg to wish no ill upon them regardless of their trespasses or deathly ability to cling to nostalgia. It’s a story about how reliving one’s glory days for the rest of their lives could kill them in the end. It’s a prescient metaphor for alcoholism and friendship in general. It’s hilarious, but a lot more cerebral than the trio’s past outings. It’s really the perfect send off for a series made by people who never want to wear out their welcome like Gary King would have.