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The Once and Future Kings: ‘The World’s End’ is a triumph for Pegg, Frost, and Wright

The Once and Future Kings: ‘The World’s End’ is a triumph for Pegg, Frost, and Wright

the world's end poster

The World’s End

Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright

Directed by Edgar Wright

United Kingdom, 2013

To exit a film directed by Edgar Wright is to be reinvigorated by the state of modern cinema. He’s now made his fourth feature-length film, The World’s End, and it’s tempting to rate it as his best work yet. But when you consider his others—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—the challenge becomes differentiating these by how many slight nitpicks may crop up from story to story. Like most directors of his generation, Wright’s work is heavily influenced by the pop culture of his childhood. Unlike many of his peers, though, Wright is able to translate that affection and hyper-literate awareness into something fresh, exciting, and intelligent. As such, The World’s End is as peerless as a mainstream film gets.

Closing out the so-called Cornetto Trilogy—named for a brand of ice cream that makes an appearance of sorts in Shaun, Hot Fuzz, and this film—The World’s End ostensibly is about five middle-aged men on a pub crawl revived by their would-be leader, Gary King (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the film with Wright). Gary is desperate to relive the glory that he and his mates achieved back in the summer of 1990, so he cajoles, wheedles, and begs as much as he has to, just to convince Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Andrew (Nick Frost) to join him for the 12-bar Golden Mile in their old hometown, climaxing at the fabled pub known as The World’s End. To say more would give away the surprises within, though suffice to say, things spiral out of control mighty quickly.

worlds end pegg frost

It’s a testament to Wright, Pegg, Frost, and the rest that The World’s End doesn’t spiral similarly, but manages to balance the freewheeling tone that Gary wishes to reestablish with his once and future friends, along with a cutting edge of modern science fiction. In some ways, the seeping paranoia that infused Pegg’s Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz seems like a test run for the portentous doom represented in every smiling face and blank stare this quintet encounters. What makes The World’s End so special is that it feels generously overstuffed, allowing each performer a few moments to shine, especially Pegg and Frost. They have, in the other Cornetto films (as well as Paul), reached for tearful emotion, but these men are braver and more intense here than anywhere else in their respective filmographies.

The World’s End is a deceptive, sneaky film in this respect, opening with a nearly half-hour passage in which it’s absolutely apparent that Gary’s desperate struggle to never not be the life of the party has crippled him into an unshakable state of arrested development, one he hasn’t left for over 2 decades.  He drinks to be happy, and he’s only happy when he drinks. The World’s End is not shy about presenting Gary as an instantly tragic, destructive figure, but Pegg imbues him with such brio and mania that it’s easy to see why the other men—even Andrew, whose history with Gary is darkest of all—allow themselves to be swept up in his storm. Pegg’s work is exemplary; he, at times, calls to mind Jack Nicholson in The Shining, his hair swept back and unkempt; his eyebrows arching to the heavens and sloping back down; his face a pale, sweaty mess. Simon Pegg is an innately likable performer, and Gary is easily the furthest against type he’s played, but his work here proves his depth and capability as an actor. Frost, also playing against type as the bitter and strait-laced Andrew, matches him note for note. Andrew’s rage has bottled up because of the way he and Gary left their tight bond as friends; Frost taps into this barely coiled suburban man exceptionally well, all the more so considering his past, more deliberately outsized work.

pegg worlds end

Acting aside—and Freeman, Marsan, and especially Considine all are quite sterling, too—The World’s End is incredibly fun, even during that extended first act, when the characters have acidic verbal fights. Watching Edgar Wright run circles around other modern filmmakers is, simply put, a thrill. And once he lifts the curtain on the sci-fi elements of the film, which work wonders as a metaphor for the fear and frustration of returning home after years away and finding the old haunts are just slightly different, Wright unleashes his abilities as an accomplished director of crisp, visceral action. Almost every other filmmaker who released a big-budget action movie this summer (and in summers past) would do well to not only watch The World’s End, but to study its technique. Edgar Wright is not reinventing the wheel here; he’s just using the wheel the way it was designed to be used. The staging in a number of the film’s action sequences, such as an early one in a dimly lit bathroom, elevates the fights to a higher level of success for one reason: the sequences are clear and coherent. There is no wondering who’s hitting who, no reason to be perplexed; Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope shoot the action with no frills, no shaky-cam, nothing that would obscure what’s happening on screen.

Anyone who’s seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, or even Spaced, the TV series where Pegg, Frost, and Wright all got their big break, would not be surprised. The World’s End is the product of patience, time, and ingenuity, a film made by people who have apparently achieved a balance in their lives between engaging in the inherent childishness of modern, male-driven popular culture, and enjoying the vagaries of adulthood. In the time between Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have all reached levels of popularity they might not have dreamed back when they were concocting that zom-rom-com. In The World’s End, they have not only capped off the Cornetto Trilogy fantastically, but they have delivered one of the year’s best films. And regarding Edgar Wright: his next film is Ant-Man, a Marvel adaptation slated to come out in the fall of 2015. What a shame it is that we have to wait so long for another movie from one of the standout filmmakers of the 21st century.

— Josh Spiegel