If you were to ask me to name the best action director working today — scene for scene, fist for fist, bullet for bullet, fireball for fireball — I would be sorely tempted to choose a filmmaker who has never made a traditional action movie at all. He is an Englishman named Edgar Wright, and if you haven’t heard of him, that means that you’re probably unacquainted with one of the most unusual treats in recent cinema: the so-called Cornetto trilogy — named for a British ice-cream snack that makes a cameo in each — which consists of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s Hot Fuzz, and now this year’s The World’s End.
Each of these films features the same two actors: Simon Pegg (also Wright’s screenwriting collaborator) and Nick Frost, whose contrasting, Jack Sprat–and–his–wife physiques — Pegg a skinny live wire, Frost pear-shaped and bear-faced — make them effective partners in slapstick and mayhem. In Shaun, they were London housemates hoping to ride out a zombie apocalypse in the safety of their favorite pub. In Fuzz, they were odd-couple cops going to Bruckheimerian lengths to solve a string of murders in the quintessential tidy little English village.
Now they’re the long-estranged best friends at the heart of a five-man crew of erstwhile drinking buddies (the other members of the crew are played by Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan), returning to Newton Haven, the placid suburb they all decamped from 20 years before, to complete some unfinished business from their high-school days. The night following their graduation, they had attempted an epic pub crawl, dubbed “the golden mile,” which included stops at all twelve bars within Newton Haven’s limits. The original crawl petered out around pub number 10, but this time, with middle age encroaching, they’re determined to reach the final watering hole: The World’s End.
Or rather, Pegg’s character, Gary King, is determined to go all the way, and the rest are reluctantly along for the ride. In high school, Gary’s social status lived up to his last name, but it’s been all downhill since then: He’s a scruffy alcoholic burnout, with the fast-talking prevarication of the species, and this reunion is obviously his attempt to roll back time’s remorseless wheel. His friends, who have mostly done better for themselves, have to be sold on the idea, and, in the case of Frost’s character, Andy, a recovering alcoholic, actively deceived into taking part in it. But predictably enough, they all turn out to have their own unfinished business in Newton Haven, from the bully who made life hell for Marsan’s Peter to the girl (now a woman, and played delightfully by Rosamund Pike) whom Considine’s Steven has been carrying a torch for all these years.
But since this is an installment of the Cornetto trilogy, the conventional setup — The Big Chill with blokes and beers — eventually gives way, around the middle of the movie, to an extravagant genre parody. Newton Haven, it turns out, hasn’t just been conquered by dull suburban conformity (the pubs all look alike now, the guys complain, and nobody seems to remember their epic high-school years). It’s gone the way of its American counterpart in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and been taken over by alien life forms from deep space.
Exactly how and why the body snatching is happening takes a while to figure out (the replacements seem to be robots, of a sort, though their offense at that term is one of the movie’s running gags), and I’m not quite sure I ever did get a handle on the mechanics of the invaders’ plan. But even after our gang has knocked the heads off several Newton Havenites and watched them leak blue paint, their original plan for the evening remains basically the same. Lest the body snatchers realize that they’re on to what’s been happening, Gary insists, they need to keep up appearances and finish out the pub crawl. So finish they do, with the predictable result that the barstools of the final stop double as front-row seats for Armageddon.
As this plot summary suggests, Wright’s movies work on a peculiar combination of wavelengths: They are both fondly intimate send-ups of England and Englishness (the pubs, the villages, the self-effacement) and expansive, brilliantly choreographed send-ups of American blockbusters. And somehow — because of the cast, the writing, and Wright’s remarkable facility for shooting action sequences — the combination turns out to be more winning than anyone could have expected.
I don’t know if The World’s End is quite the most effective entry in the trilogy. For one thing, unlike zombie movies and Bruckheimer-esque shoot-’em-ups, the body-snatcher story isn’t really a genre unto itself, and so has fewer instantly recognizable tropes to exploit and send up. For another, the mood is somewhat darker than in the first two films, and sometimes that darkness gets a bit too real for comfort. That Pegg’s lost-soul protagonist occasionally evokes Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas is an acting success, but not necessarily a comedic one.
But even with these weaknesses and dissonances, the overall package is nearly as entertaining as its predecessors. So if you like America, or England, or the movies, or the world in general, it’s worth giving The World’s End a try. When you’re tired of the Cornetto trilogy, you’re tired of life.