Monday, September 16, 2013

The World's End Review: Pegg, Frost, Wright Did it Again, in Style

I have a history with the makers of The World's End. I watched this team’s first collaboration, the exceptional UK series called Spaced, in 2004; although the series had ended 3 years prior, the comedy was (and is) still minty-fresh. However, Shaun of the Dead, which had most of the same principle players, was due to come out later that year, and I eagerly anticipated it.

I had some problems with Shaun’s shifts between pure comedy and straight, full-on horror, but as I sat beside my Spaced-ignorant friend, DJ, and we both immensely enjoyed its wit and style and jokes. Three years later saw the release of their next work, Hot Fuzz, and it made me fall in love with them even harder. How much did I like HF? I saw Fuzz on a date, and only 20-30 minutes in, I had already decided that I needed to take DJ to see it, in a theater, as soon as possible.

And, so, 6 years on, I was long-since stoked for the finale of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. 12 days ago, I sat down with DJ and my 2 good friends, Tom and Rachel, in a Brooklyn theater - we were all anxious for the latest installment of the combined powrs of Frost, Pegg, and Wright. The 4 of us began laughing shortly after the film began, we kept laughing throughout, and there were a series of excellent surprises that truly impressed us.

In case you know nothing about Cornettos or this trilogy.

The World's End is about Gary King (Pegg), a man who never did anything with his life. He glorifies his high school days – clearly his “peak” – and decides that he will gather his 4 now-estranged school mates. But he’s not doing this to seek help, or atone for past sins, or to re-connect with the people who knew him best. He want sthem to complete “the Golden Mile” with him, a 12-bar pub crawl that they attempted (and failed at) on their graduation day.

Gathering his distant pals is no easy task. For one thing, they’ve all applied themselves and become responsible businessmen and/or husbands. More importantly, however, they all despise Gary because he treated them terribly in the past. But after he manages to cajole each man – it involves lots of lies and confusing speeches – the men all agree to this silly trip back home.

When they arrive in quaint old Newton Haven, they find it changed: the first pub on their tour is now generic and has lost all its charm; the residents don’t remember any of them; and everyone in town acts more than a little oddly. As the pints keep flowing and the men proceed through the crawl, they quickly realize something is deeply wrong and that they may be facing The End of the World.

So, I’ll note first that this movie skews everything that the trio of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright, put to celluloid before. In Shaun, Simon is a mindless slacker idiot - a loser who is fairly easy to like - while Nick plays his even more loserific pal; only in the face of an apocalypse does Pegg's role focus and grow up, even though he causes more problems than he solves. Fuzz has Frost portraying an irresponsible - but loveable - child-cop, while Pegg is an emotionless uber-professional who loosens up due to the loneliness and outsider status in his new environment.

In The World’s End, however, Simon Pegg plays a thoroughly-unlikeable as--ole; he offends every single time he opens his mouth, much less does something. Gary King has, in essence, no redeeming qualities – and, if you open up & give him a chance, he’ll find new ways to offend/annoy. Nick Frost's Andy Knightely, meanwhile, is a quiet, smart, and responsible family man. That the joke is no longer on Nick's part is a welcome variation on what he’s done in every prior Wright/Pegg/Frost feature; he’s not only effective, he’s actually this pic’s most vocal moral center.

So after one TV series and two movies with sometimes-difficult yet ultimately-charming leads, we’ve truly come to the bitter end. Gary’s four mates are in great shape, overall, but Mr. King is both a failure and a man whose brashness and inconsiderate can ruin any occasion. What, then, keeps an audience member from cringing through the acerbic qualities of Edgar Wright's latest success?

Really, the same factors that worked so well for Fuzz, Shaun, and Spaced: the cast is excellent, with characters that are each well-written and relatable/familiar; the soundtrack, put together by bigtime audiophiles Wright and Pegg, is sharp and befitting the picture; and, above all, this movie is dead funny. It helps that Gary joins so many other great movie as—oles by getting his comeuppance often and hard, but the surprises are icing on this fine cake; the delicious filling, of course, is the superb interplay between Frost and Pegg:

After proceeding to the fourth stop on the crawl, the entire film changes and transitions into being a subgenre picture, just like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz before it. Actually, it's more complicated this time around, as it's not just “comedy/drama” "+ zombie film" or "+ slasher film" - tWE becomes a fusion of sub-genres: in addition to the man-child/annoying friend story we've had all along, we get a splice of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a gloriously-loving, well-executed homage to old Hong Kong beat-'em-up films.

As far as that first addition goes, it's a fine subplot - and I have to call it "a subplot" because it only arrives halfway into the movie. In essence, the boys discover that Newton Haven is filled with robots whose origins and purpose are unknown. Whereas the scale of the problem and its ramifications are obscured until the last 20-30 minutes, it is soon apparent that the five characters may have bigger problems than surviving the crawl or even leaving town undetected.

The Jackie Chan-inspired fight scenes, however, are a sheer joy. These are among the best-looking and best-choreographed fights I've witnessed, hearkening back to the giddy days of Drunken Master II and Once Upon a Time in China III. Not only is it supremely fun to watch Frost, Pegg, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman(!) engage in the grab, block, punch, push, and pull mechanics of people who have studied kung-fu, but there are no confusing close-up shots of arms. You see everything, and even have a clear sense of where each combatant is at any given moment! These aspects alone would be enough to earn The World's End a special place in my heart.

But, as I mentioned above, there is a real thematic sensibility at play here. His companions being fed up with Gary's behavior and attitude is a plot that comes to a head just as the initial fight sequence begins - a scene which is a direct homage to my favorite fight in Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors. Much like a drinker, once they "break the seal" by going to the bathroom for the first time, the problem keeps coming up, over and over again.

By never letting go of Gary's problems from that point on, the film gains an added resonance with the prior story elements. tWE manages to keep dealing with the characters' problems while also addressing the larger storyline. And the fact that Gary is a deeply-damaged, childish loud-mouth is never forgotten or made to seem like the right thing to do. If Quentin Tarantino has a love for talking about what "cool" is, then Gary King represents the worst possible scenario of someone telling themselves that being cool is their "job," and believing it even though life keeps showing how badly they suck.

I had only a few problems with the film, but they were mostly drowned out because every odd beat would soon lose out to a well-played joke. While Gary’s wooing of his former mates isn’t too forced, the idea that they’d sign up for 12 pints in one night is. Do people in the UK agree to do stuff that they can't complete?

Some jokes fall a bit flat, yet are sporadic enough to be ignored. And there are several scenes of the 5-man crew trying to figure things out – they’re being too loud to void notice, but nothing immediately befalls them (most of the time), which undermines the sense of urgency that this movie should be better at maintaining.

It’s that last that is most troublesome. I did feel something seep out of this picture as the players have “secret” conversations that are baldly announced for all to hear. But the fact that these men are all soused undercuts their stupidity. Although those moments did not play as well for me as the filmmakers intended, I could still accept them because they were soon intruded upon by other beats and scenes. And hell, it is a pub crawl and so I can’t ignore the inherent, still somewhat-funny, humor in having drunken men respond to a major catastrophe.

The World's End is not perfect, but it was an excellent film-going experience. Being so thoroughly-entertained (my three companions were as pleased as I was), it's not easy at the moment to point to the problems I had with it more than I already have. I didn't like the basic idea behind the coda at the end, sure, but I felt like I had gone to see a real, fun, mature movie, and it felt like a whole artistic piece; I could only remove a few elements before I would end up changing the basic nature of the work itself.

I've decided to not wait for a double dip, and will directly address the ending's problems and stupidity. I'll use "hidden" text you have to highlight if you don't mind the spoilers; if you wish to discuss them in the comments, please do first write "spoilers" in all caps, tho.
-That the ending comes down to two guys drunkenly arguing away an alien invasion is dumb as well as funny. It's a childish storytelling choice, yet it's appropriate as a central theme of the film. But it wouldn't work.
-The ending can't even be taken seriously because its immediate setup is bulls--t: Aliens secretly land on Earth, take over several towns, kill people and replace them with "robots." They say we're savage and they need to civilize us to get us into their Federation or whatever.

So... Raise your hand if you believe murderers, or don't think that's a deal you just can't trust. Those of you who raised your hands: don't stand next to me if a horror movie happens in real life.

-But if you take all these factors together, this night wouldn't make the aliens leave. Yeah, it's as simple as that. Please note, I haven't even gotten to the bad part yet.
-I love Nick narrating the end, but the idea that we'd "lose" all technology is stupid. Technically, that word includes farming, writing, and language. But it's not US-to-Europe distance! By boat, you can travel to the Continent pretty g-d easily, so he'd have news of France, at least.
-The ending means 2 things, I guess: Gary has had a psychotic break and is now living out a child's fantasies, violently Yeah, creep, tally-ho. Also, snotty sociopathic aliens just abandoned - and ruined - the world over a drunken argument. PS, like half our global population will die because we have no medicine or clean water. Deathly-ill kids, how funny (feat. cancer gets worse and stopped pacemakers).

If I were asked whether I would alter large sections of the piece or simply accept it, flaws and all – a question I also encountered with Shaun of the Dead - I would choose to accept the flaws, and respect the filmmakers for creating a fine, rewarding motion picture. It was much better than simply “good enough,” so I say let it stand. Still, tWE just wasn't the right place for a beat like the over-zealous law enforcement end in Hot Fuzz.

I guess I should've expected it from a director/writer team-up that seriously names their 5 leads King, Prince, Chamberlain, Knightely, and Page. Oh, and Peter Page's character is shorter and meeker than the rest of them.

Thank you, Wright, Pegg, Frost, and everyone else. I looked forward to this effort from the moment I heard about it, and I remain a happy, grateful fan. I will lift my glass to you now, and wish you all many more successes in the future. As far as I'm concerned, their next work can't come soon enough.


  1. Nice review. I think I felt a little more sympathetic towards King, and Pegg's performance is a huge reason why, but mostly I get you.

    I already spoke of my dislike towards the ending in the review. I just don't understand it. On a whole too, like you pointed out, the film isn't as well put together as the first two. I think a lot of stuff that happens or is said is kind of just *there*, whereas the first two films were these perfect neat little packages that I personally really like.

    Did not notice the 5 leads King thing. Gah so smart. I would love another set of movies from Wright-Pegg-Frost.

    1. Thank you so much, Nikhat! We both know you're wonderful, but I'd like to take this time to say it again.

      Yes, as good as the film is, there are a lot of scenes that just feel "there," and I feel like part of it is down to the child-like enthusiasm and glee of the writers.

      Hey, don't sweat it - your terribly-smart review caught things I didn't quite notice, either...


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