Reunions with old friends can be something of a double-edged sword. Go in with no expectations and chances are you’ll feel like not a day has gone by since you last saw each other, the bond and chemistry still wonderfully intact. If however you get hooked on nostalgia and try too hard to recreate fond memories that are best left in the past, you are more likely to end up with a crushing disappointment.
The World’s End, which reunites real-life best buds Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with director Edgar Wright six years after they last collaborated on a feature length project, is far from being the crushing disappointment you might have feared, yet somehow doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead.
The plot sees a group of high school friends being reunited by Gary King (Simon Pegg), former leader of the pack and self-appointed local legend, approximately twenty years after they last tried to complete an epic pub crawl consisting of twelve venues, the final one being the titular Word’s End. The problem is not everyone is keen on reliving the past quite like Gary, especially his estranged best mate Andrew (Nick Frost). And to make matters worse, the town of Newton Haven seems to have been taken over by an army of alien robots.
While Shaun was presented as “a romantic comedy with zombies” and Fuzz tried to transpose the buddy cop action movie conventions to a rural British setting, TWE positions itself as a coming of age film spliced with Sci-fi DNA. The first act is heavily invested in establishing the relationship between the core characters, so much that we’re introduced to them twice: first as teenagers and then as their older, mellower selves… except Gary is still clinging onto his glory years with the same firm grip he has on his outdated Goth wardrobe.
He is easily the most complex character we’ve seen Pegg play to date, especially as he’s always been the straight man to Nick Frost’s goofy sidekick, but this time the roles have been switched. The latter is a family man with a successful business, who’s all too happy to have put his boozing years behind him. The former is a world class jerk with Peter Pan syndrome, who is desperately trying to conceal hidden, disturbing layers. It’s this role reversal that proves to be TWE’s biggest strength, the on-screen relationship between the two actors proving far more compelling than the more chummy and straightforward versions seen in Shaun and Fuzz.
But herein lays the key problem with TWE. Because so much time is spent on the backstory and relationship between these characters, the sharp turn into sci-fi territory feels like a distraction from a more grounded and interesting narrative. In Shaun of the Dead the horror storyline feeds into the plot gradually by teasing the imminent arrival of the zombies with sight gags. Here the alien invasion is signalled by a sudden and very messy scrap with a group of chavs in the men’s room, which feels abrupt and forced in comparison.
That’s not to say TWE isn’t as funny or as action-packed as its predecessors. If anything, the gag-rate is impressive and of the rapid fire kind, so much that you’ll struggle to remember all the stand-out lines (although “we’ll always have the disableds” is a contender for best of the bunch). The decision to follow through with a pub crawl in the midst of an otherworldly threat may be baffling from a logic point of view but it does make for demented action set pieces due to the characters’ increasingly inebriated state, with Nick Frost at one point coming off as a drunk Hulk/Jason Bourne hybrid, as he batters hordes of adversaries with the aid of stool chairs. If anything, it proves Edgar Wright has become just as comfortable directing fight scenes as he is at doing comedy, which bodes well for his upcoming Ant-Man gig for Marvel. And, this being a Wright/Pegg screenplay, you can expect a Cornetto reference and cameos abound.
It’s just a shame yet somewhat fitting that, keeping in theme with aliens being invasive, the film disappears up its own arse like a giant anal probe in its’ closing minutes (MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW). Is it really necessary to justify the invasion with an overlong exposition scene? Isn’t the epilogue a little too Mad Max for its own good? By this point it seems the filmmakers have already moved onto aping yet another movie genre instead of wrapping up nicely the one they’ve been focusing on for the past 100 minutes.
To adopt the reunion metaphor one last time, The World’s End feels like a pleasant enough catch-up where everyone has a good laugh, but there’s an underlying sensation you’re getting too old for this shit, or rather, that this shit is starting to get old. But we’ll raise nonetheless a glass to Pegg & co. for their valuable effort. Cheers.