There’s something deeply apt about the central tenet of The World’s End involving Simon Pegg’s hopeless wastrel Gary King seeking comfort in the familiar haunts of his youth. Having spent the six years since Hot Fuzz developing respective careers that have shown an ability to outgrow and expand from, rather than simply retread, the paths that made them famous, Pegg and his trusty cohorts Nick Frost and Edgar Wright return to complete the fabled ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ trilogy by digging for the same sort of cosy familiarity that Gary looks for in his fabled twelve-pint pub crawl.
And the familiarity is, to begin with, comforting for the audience, too. After a pre-title sequence that’s as close to a big screen version of Spaced as we’ll ever get (yes, including Shaun Of The Dead), the remainder of the opening act plays out with a tone that borders on flat out Pegg-Wright-Frost nostalgia. Wright’s signature scene-pans are in place, the dialogue subtly hints at future plot events in the way Shaun so expertly did, and the character humour – as Gary rounds up a dispersed gang of school chums to their home town to re-enact the pub-crawl-that-never-quite-was – is reassuring and comfortable.
The first hint that the film intends to surprise, though, comes with its first heavy gear change – with the opening half an hour or so managing to lull the audience into forgetting that actually, a sudden shift into violence is as much a trademark of the Cornetto films as Pegg jumping over a fence. Managing to turn what should be an expected peeling-back of the plot proper into a sudden and genuine shock is just the first of a number of twists and swerves the film decides to take.
Perhaps most notable of these, although it’s apparent from any advance publicity you may have seen, is the decision by Pegg and Frost to reverse their usual roles – Frost playing the more sensible, ‘together’ Andy, while Pegg is allowed to cut loose for arguably the first time in this partnership. On the one hand, it’s an inspired move – it means we get Pegg’s best performance in many a long while. King is a masterful creation, in the finest tradition of British comic monsters. He’s jokey on the surface but deeply grim underneath, the unpleasant ‘life and soul of the party’, who has nothing to live for but the next pint, and seems to care little about the friends he drags through metaphorical hedges with him. A less inherently likeable actor would make the character irredeemable, but a performance filled with nuance leaves us perpetually uncertain as to whether we should give up on him or root for him.
The positive side of this role-swapping, however, comes at the expense of getting a performance out of Frost to match his turn as Hot Fuzz‘s Danny Butterman. The feeling that he’s outgrown the likes of Shaun‘s Ed or Spaced‘s Mike persists, but the range he’s shown in recent years is largely untapped here, as he’s forced to play the straight man, with only a late sparking of the classic Simon-and-Nick chemistry kicking full life into the character. Not that he’s alone in this. A fine set of supporting players in Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Rosamund Pike are given characters who can’t help but be overshadowed by Pegg’s towering performance. Indeed, as far as the supporting cast goes, it’s single-scene cameos from an array of names (many too good to spoil) that keep the interest up.
Although more overtly a genre piece than its predecessors, the gay abandon with which the film leaps head-first into its sci-fi conceit actually allows it to sustain the humour for longer than they did. Where the plot of Shaun necessitated a significantly darker final act, and Fuzz relied on mystery and dramatic tension, The World’s End shoots far closer to out-and-out parody, with a threat that seems drawn from approximately five or six classic films at once. With a less palpable sense of jeopardy at play – although Wright draws a couple of genuinely chilling moments that we won’t spoil here – the laughs are able to fly more freely, drawn largely from argument-based patter and the odd bit of slapstick. There’s one absolutely exquisite, near-show-stopping visual gag to boot.
By the time the obligatory Cornetto reference shows up, however, it’s hard to shake a very slight nagging feeling that the gang have made the film that people might have expected of them, rather than the film they necessarily wanted to. It’s as if the pressure to make a third ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ film slightly compromised, rather than informed, the story they planned to tell. That in turn means that an ending quite unlike anything they’ve done before (and which you suspect will be heavily debated, for better or worse, for quite some time afterwards) feels like the film’s major attempt to break from the norm.
A sharp, funny, energetic, visually and sonically stylish romp, the only real problem with The World’s End is that as the third film this team have made that ticks all those boxes, it falls prey to the risk of having those qualities be taken for granted. The cosy nostalgia remains very welcome, but the film’s at its best when it sets out to surprise and confound, rather than to simply give us what we want. As such, the lesson that it sets out to teach Gary is one that it could perhaps stand to learn just a little from itself.
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