Expectations can be tricky to manage. As Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright conclude their Blood and Ice Cream/Three Flavours: Cornetto trilogy, the desire for something that not only measures up to, but is essentially the same as, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz is very strong.
But the team has chosen to sidestep those expectations by making a sci-fi action comedy that, despite hewing closely to genre classics, is more interested in its characters than one liners and references.
Not that character development is in any way a new approach for Wright and Pegg, but there’s a noticeably stronger interest in the dramatic. The tone is rather similar to the final half hour of Shaun, as the characters are forced to confront the cold fact of 40 and examine how the events of their childhood have determined the men they have become.
Roughly 20 years after they tried and failed to complete ‘The Golden Mile’ pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven, Gary King (Pegg), Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine) Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) have all gone their separate ways. Desperate to rekindle the glory of his youth, Gary cajoles each of his reluctant former friends into giving it one last go. But it quickly become clear that Newton Haven isn’t exactly as they remember it.
After a 16mm pre-credits sequence that establishes exactly who Gary is and what his ‘friends’ think of him, The World’s End dives into a Blues Brothers-style ‘getting the band back together’ sequence that introduces us to the ensemble. It’s a fantastic cast, but the emphasis is, as you’d expect, on Pegg and Frost. The latter takes the straight-man role as the teetotaller with the biggest grudge against Gary, and gives a very strong performance indeed.
As Gary blithely tramples on his friends, Pegg sinks his teeth into the role with glee, but the rest of the cast, particularly Considine, are rather hard done by. That being said, Marsan steals several scenes and Rosamund Pike (playing old flame Sam) is obviously having fun as her character picks up a barstool and joins in the ruckus.
However, despite the arrested development humour and the fantastic soundtrack, there’s a surprisingly gloomy atmosphere as the group get drinking. Feelings are hurt, resentments simmer, old wounds are opened and the friends’ patience wears thin. As Peter remembers how a bully made his life miserable, some viewers might be wondering when the alien jokes are going to start. Are we supposed to be laughing at Gary, with his addiction and ruined friendships, or feeling sorry for him?
The lean towards the dramatic sometimes makes the sudden swerves into robot smashing, big cameos and recurring jokes a bit jarring. While it’s great fun watching a cast of this calibre drunkenly take on an alien invasion under the direction of someone as inventive and exuberant as Wright, those expecting Hot Fuzz 2 should know that The World’s End is significantly less quotable than the previous two films. Given the nature of what’s being referenced, this isn’t too surprising. You can’t sincerely homage films as bleak as Quatermass and The Midwich Cuckoos with too many one-liners, and the occasional attempts to do so are hit and miss.
The script is often very funny and has a sensibility that can best be described as John Wyndham filtered through Douglas Adams if Douglas Adams swore a lot. It benefits from the increased momentum once the group figures out what’s going on, and there’s some cracking stuff as they try and fail to remain incognito, which leads into some fantastically choreographed fight sequences (thanks to Scott Pilgrim choreographer Brad Allen). An extended punch-up in in The Beehive pub is comfortably the best action set piece that Wright has shot to date.
While it’s not as funny as its two predecessors, the decision to try a different approach should be applauded. We’ve already got a Shaun Of The Dead and a Hot Fuzz; this is something different.
The cast are on excellent form, the action is fantastic, and there are some very funny moments. The film’s contemplation of lost youth and the fidelity to the tone – without making constant reference – of its inspirations makes The World’s End a lot more interesting than another whip-pan-packed reference-fest would have been, and the characters’ acceptance that they need to grow up and move on makes it an affecting and entertaining – if uneven – conclusion to a fantastic trilogy.