Director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost return for one last bite of the Cornetto in The World’s End, the final entry in their pop-culturally attuned comic answer to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors films, the Blood & Ice-Cream trilogy. Having previously lampooned zombie movies in Shaun of the Dead and buddy cop action flicks in their follow-up, Hot Fuzz, the Brits now turn their satiric straight-razors to science-fiction, in a blood (or should we say ink) splattered showdown that brings the series, and possibly the entire planet, to an end. Debate continues to rage in the film-geek community about which of the two previous films is the stronger (the right answer is Hot Fuzz, by the way). Sadly, it’s difficult to imagine that many people will be casting a vote for part three.
In something of a reversal, it’s Pegg playing the irresponsible fuck-up instead of Frost. Forty and friendless, Gary King is well into the drug and nicotine stained ends of middle age, reduced to spending his court-appointed AA meetings reminiscing about the glory days, an era typified, in his mind, by the night more than twenty years earlier, when he and four school mates made it three quarters of the way through “The Golden Mile”, an epic twelve pub pub-crawl in his boyhood town of Newton Haven. The evening should have ended with a final drink at the titular watering-hole “The World’s End”, but the teenagers proved unable to hold their liquor. Two decades later and with nothing better to do, Gary decides to get the boys back together and attempt The Mile once more.
Of course unlike Gary, the lads from the Newton Haven High School graduating class of 1990 have long left adolescence behind them, and Andrew (Frost) especially wants nothing to do with his former classmates due to an unspecified incident in their past. Still, through a combination of persistence and bald-faced lies, Gary manages to convince them all to come along. It’s not quite the homecoming the group are expecting though, as they quickly discover that almost the entire population of Newton Haven has been replaced with homicidal robots. Suddenly, its less about reliving the good times as it is about surviving through the night.
Any problem’s The World’s End suffers from has nothing to do with the cast. The comic talents and on-screen chemistry of Pegg and Frost has already well documented, while Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman – playing the gang’s three supporting members Steven, Peter and “O-Man” – all prove to be welcome additions.
That said, there’s no denying that Wright and company are covering much of the same thematic and narrative ground – the dynamics of male friendship; the need to grow up; the notion of something sinister lurking behind homogenised small-town facades – that they already dealt with in Shaun and Hot Fuzz (the former two concepts have also been addressed ad nauseum in the films of Judd Apatow and his imitators). At times it feels like The Word’s End was born more out of a feeling of obligation to complete the thematic trilogy than it does from a desire to tell a story worth telling. As a result, you just don’t get the same sense of geekish enthusiasm this time around.
There’s pun-laden dialogue and slapstick violence aplenty, but the meta element feels sloppy. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz both drew their biggest laughs by playing with the tropes of the subgenres they were spoofing (for example, the fact that no one in a zombie film seems to have heard of “the z-word”, or the image of a hero diving sideways through the air with a pistol in each hand). By comparison, the gags in The World’s End never have that same level of awareness or specificity – the Invasion of the Body Snatchers template they’re working with feels arbitrary, and lacks the breadth and depth of exploitable clichés as the material they’ve previous lampooned.
The story also never quite lands on the emotional level, although not for want of trying. Gary’s desire to rekindle the energy and possibility of youth speaks a lot to the person he has become, and Pegg really sells the disillusionment and insecurity buried somewhere beneath the scumminess. Even so, as the film moves into its final act, the big revelations and heartfelt speeches Wright starts hitting us with never quite feel fully earned. Combine that with a very weird coda that suddenly throws in a half-baked allegory about intolerance, and you’re again left wondering whether the film is truly a passion project, or just something thrown together out of a misguided sense of completionism.
At the same time, you don’t want to be too harsh on the film or its makers, because it’s still, for the most part, entertaining. It’s also worth mentioning that Wright remains one of the most stylistically dynamic comic directors working today, his non-conventional framing and aggressive approach to editing ensuring that the physical act of watching the film is engaging in and of itself. At the end of the day, it’s the combined talent of those involved, along with the expectations set by their previous collaborations, which makes The World’s End somewhat disappointing.