Without much fanfare, Edgar Wright has molded himself into one of the best action directors in the world. Shaun of the Dead had many effective moments of zombie slaughter, and, with Hot Fuzz, Wright matured into someone who could simultaneously parody Michael Bay and deliver Bay-type material more effectively than the man himself. The third film in Wright’s so-called Cornetto trilogy of films made with actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, The World’s End, goes even further. It becomes a sharp and riveting action-comedy that has few peers in the last decade.
Pegg’s Gary King was the leader of a circle of five high school friends, who departed secondary education with a legendary pub crawl back in 1990. Twenty years later, Gary re-assembles the old gang, including his one-time best bud Andy (Frost), to try that crawl again. There’s just one minor obstacle in their way: an invasion of their hometown by robot aliens. In addition to the previous Wright/Pegg/Frost films, the subsequent hijinks will recall another superb British sci-fi film Wright produced: Attack the Block.
The danger in this material is that it could easily become a greatest-hits collection of the other Cornetto films. At first, Gary seems to be the same sort of lazy man-child that Pegg played in Shaun of the Dead, and his hometown of Newton Haven seems to be the same sort of idyllic-village-with-a-secret that was portrayed in Hot Fuzz. But The World’s End has a different comic sensibility than the other Cornetto films, so heavy on wordplay and grammar puns that it nearly resembles Shane Black’sKiss Kiss Bang Bang. Pegg pulls off the difficult job of making Gary painfully annoying for his friends in one moment, but able to pull off a clever pun to charm his way back into their hearts.
Moreover, a new element is introduced in this film, which puts a different spin on the material: pity. It’s departure enough that Pegg plays the least competent member of the band of heroes. But beyond that, every member of the group (including the reliable character actors Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, as well as Martin Freeman of The Hobbit) is well aware that Gary is a failure. His friends are better at fighting aliens and better at normal life, and they know it. Their interactions with Gary at the beginning of the movie, before the introduction of the sci-fi element, are so loaded with pity that one has to laugh to keep from squirming. Shaun of Shaun of the Dead was on a downward slope but still had potential to recover; Gary’s potential has been completely wasted.
Then the robots are introduced, via an action setpiece so beautifully organized that it seems cribbed directly from Jackie Chan’s playbook. The Chan parallels must have been intended: a sequence in the middle of the film, where Gary’s attempts to drink a pint are constantly foiled by robot fights, mirrors Chan’s Drunken Master films too well to be mere coincidence. The kung fu references are not new for this team –Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz had Chan-esque visual cues too- but they are integrated into The World’s End with such grace that one need not be film-nerdy enough to know the references in order to enjoy the moments.
The World’s End does have one problem, and it’s a serious one: its worst 15 minutes are its last 15 minutes. Wright and Pegg, who wrote the film, probably intended to put a cunning spin on the old-school sci-fi trope of humans defeating robots by frying their computer brains with anti-logic. In practice, however, the ending contains a large amount of monologuing by both hero and villain, which is not nearly as funny as it wants to be. That climax is followed by a denouement that feels wildly dark and out of place compared to the preceding story.
Still, most of The World’s End is so immensely entertaining that its ending, befuddling though it is, won’t ruin the overall experience. As with the other Cornetto films, the plot is secondary compared to the joy of watching great actors execute funny material and superlative action sequences. The audience will learn the same thing that Gary does: just making it to the end of your journey is not all. Savoring the trip is the most important part.