The World’s End Directed by Edgar Wright Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Martin Freeman Focus Features Release Date: August 23, 2012 (U.S.)
“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time… We are gonna have a party.”
That little speech – abbreviated slightly from its original version – plays a large role in defining the theme of The World’s End, the eagerly-anticipated closing chapter in the “Blood and Ice Cream” (or “Three Flavours Cornetto”) trilogy that director Edgar Wright and his frequent star and co-writer Simon Pegg created a decade ago with the romantic zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and continued in 2007 with the blazing police action drama spoof Hot Fuzz. The speech was first heard in the 1966 biker movie classic The Wild Angels and was given by Peter Fonda’s character Heavenly Blues. I recognized those lines the moment they were played on the soundtrack.
The World’s End is, I believe, about the futility of trying to recapture your lost youth when you never lost it to begin with. But it is also about how when most of us enter adulthood we take it upon ourselves to abandon our youthful identities completely and replace them with domesticity and responsibility. The five main characters of The World’s End never learned to reconcile the buttoned-down, easy-going side of their personalities with the spirited sense of fun and friendship that defined them as people growing up. The lead character decided to remain a child forever but instead grew into a sad and bedraggled wretch of a human being while his four best friends became hollow shells of what they once were.
Pegg plays the overgrown man-child Gary King. When we first meet him, Gary is sitting among the other members of his support group (his reasons for being there become clear towards the end of the movie) recounting the time he and his mates Andy, Oliver, Steven, and Peter attempted “The Golden Mile” – a massive pub crawl consisting of twelve taverns located along a mile-long stretch in their hometown of Newton Haven: the First Post, the Old Familiar, the Famous Cock, the Cross Hands, the Good Companions, the Trusty Servant, the Two-Headed Dog, the Mermaid, the Beehive, the Hole in the Wall, and finally, the World’s End. The boys never completed the crawl because those who didn’t get vomiting sick from the excessive imbibing of quality alcohol were sidelined by some pot Gary scored off local drug dealer Reverend Green. Gary gets inspired to round up his friends to take another valiant stab at conquering the Golden Mile, but finds the task of getting them to go along easier said than done.
Oliver (Martin Freeman) is now a real estate agent, Steven (Paddy Considine) is a building contractor, and Peter (Eddie Marsan) is a car salesman working for his father. It takes some doing but Gary manages to convince them to join him for the pub crawl. The only hold-out is Andy (Nick Frost), who now works for a corporate law firm and has some awfully bad blood with Gary stemming from an incident in their younger years, but eventually he relents and the gang hits the road to Newton Haven. The crawl gets off to an unexciting start and everybody except Gary seems ready to pack it all in after visiting only a few of the pubs. A chance encounter between Gary and an emotionless teenager in the men’s room of one of the pubs (it’s not what you think) leads to the revelation that most of the townspeople have been replaced by soulless automatons that bleed blue goo and have glowing eyes and mouths. Once the secret is out, the guys decide to avoid letting on that they know about what has happened by finishing the pub crawl and leaving town. As the night wears on and the attacks become increasingly relentless, that starts to appear impossible, but nothing – not even the threat of global annihilation – will deter the troubled Gary from fulfilling his greatest life’s ambition and finishing the crawl. Tonight, the boys will reach The World’s End in ways they never imagined.
I was overcome by both anticipation and trepidation when I heard Wright and Pegg had finally received the green light to make The World’s End, the wrap-up to their epic genre-bending trilogy of instant cult classics they had spoken about in interviews practically since Hot Fuzz first hit theater screens here in the States. The final film in a trilogy typically carries the greatest expectations but tends to deliver the biggest disappointments, as the knives-out furor over last year’s The Dark Knight Rises will attest. But the Three Flavours Cornetto was always meant to be different; each movie featured a great deal of elaborately layered humor and a fearless dedication to telling a somewhat tired story in a totally unique and entertaining manner that demanded repeat viewings and made fans out of anyone who watched them. From my first viewing of Shaun of the Dead through Hot Fuzz and my discovery of their late-90s BBC comedy series Spaced to even the non-Pegg-starring Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I knew Wright and Pegg were a team of bonafide cinematic geniuses who were both students and masters of the fine art of the pop culture education. I trusted them. Unlike the character of Gary tends to do for his friends, these guys never let me down.
The World’s End brings Wright and Pegg’s trilogy full circle by returning to many of the same ideas and themes they first explored in Shaun, such as the concept of adults arrested in adolescence finally blossoming into maturity by battling a voracious evil that has invaded their small town. As Gary King, Pegg is clearly playing the least charming and most abrasive of all of the characters he has played in his collaborations with Wright. Gary is a hard man to like, the former big man and leader among his friends who peaked before he really started to live his life. He’s insensitive, rude, deceitful, hedonistic, self-destructive, and an unbearable blowhard you just can’t help but like as if he were a beloved sibling gone hopelessly rotten from years of total devotion to having a good time all the time. Many of us are all too familiar with that type. It’s the twinkle in Pegg’s eye and the delightful chipper tone in his voice that keeps the character from becoming a trial to just have on screen. His all-black wardrobe, complete with faded Sisters of Mercy T-shirt (and accompanying chest tattoo), suggests the oldest and least respected wannabe Goth kid in the known universe. But Pegg wears it all with honor and brings Gary’s introspective character arc to full fruition by the end. It’s a wonderful performance with a few moments of touching sweetness and a metric ton of quotable profane dialogue.
For a change, Nick Frost gets to play a character who is not only a mature and intelligent adult who knows how to handle himself in any situation, but also one who looks on Pegg’s character with near-complete disdain. If Gary is the wayward sibling who is constantly making life miserable for those around him, then Andy is the responsible older brother who long ago grew weary of putting up with the unnecessary crap and decided to wash his hands of the whole deal and get on with his life. He’s the friend some of us really need, the one who isn’t afraid to grab us by the shoulder and shake us a few times while screaming, “Snap the f**k out of it!” But in the end, Andy and Gary are friends, and watching as they repair that broken bond through the insane adventure they plunge into is one of the greatest pleasures to be found in The World’s End. Frost gives one of the best acting turns of his young career and even gets to kick unholy amounts of keister during the movie’s many drag-out human-on-alien bar and street brawls (which I will get to further along in this review).
Hobbit star Martin Freeman is one of the brightest comedic and dramatic actors the U.K. has to offer, so it didn’t surprise me in the least that he was hilarious in his role as Oliver, but then Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan are more straight dramatic thespians who don’t get as many chances to exercise their funny bones (though Considine did appear in Hot Fuzz and Marsan plays characters with a light touch from time to time) and they too are able to bring healthy servings of levity and brevity to their performances. Rosamund Pike is the closest this movie has to a female lead despite not really coming into the story until the halfway mark as Oliver’s sister Sam, but at least the character is sweet and loving and though initially skeptical of the whole “robots have taken over the town” deal, she quickly comes to her senses and delivers a few beat downs of her own. The awkward love triangle between her, Gary, and Steven also lend some queasy romanticism to the story. Pierce Brosnan appears in a glorified cameo as the boys’ former principal, but he brings a touch of sly humor to his limited screen time, and fans of Wright and Pegg’s previous work together will enjoy spotting bit part performances from some of their longtime repertory players.
Edgar Wright can always be counted on to load his movies with plenty of visually extravagant action sequences, from the heated gun battles in Hot Fuzz to the dazzling video game-inspired martial arts duels in Scott Pilgrim. Working with famed cinematographer Bill Pope (the Matrix trilogy, Army of Darkness), Wright stages an impressive series of battle royales between Gary’s gang and the robot army that has seized their quaint little town (and some of the funniest dialogue scenes consist of the guys debating about whether or not they can really be considered robots, and if not then maybe they could be “no-bots” or “faux-bots”) with swooping camera work and dizzying fight choreography that make the brawls appear to have been filmed in single takes, though I’m sure hidden edits were used. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos fly in showers of disgusting blue plasma that had the audience at the screening I attended doubled over with repulsed laughter. Steven Price, who worked on the music for the similarly-themed 2011 British alien invasion gem Attack the Block, integrates an energized electronic and orchestral score with a soundtrack of classic cuts from the likes of Primal Scream, the Doors, Sisters of Mercy, and the Housemartins to create a wall of sound strong enough to hang a pub dartboard from and play until the sun rises over the United Kingdom.
I had a lot of fun with my first viewing of The World’s End and after a few more I’m sure it will be one of my new favorites. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have brought the trilogy that made them beloved icons of modern geek cinema to a raucous and stomach-achingly hilarious finish, but we can only hope that these two have plenty more big screen team-ups in them before the world really does end. This will be the best movie to see this weekend, so go see it.