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The World’s End – Review * 25 July 2013

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The encroaching of age, the strangeness of old friendships, and the insidious growth of technology form the backbone of Edgar Wright's new comedy The World's End, the third part of the loosely associated Three Flavours CornettoTrilogy, featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It's a film with huge laughs and surprising emotional depth, the leading pair surrounded by a group of superb performances by Rosamund Pike, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman.

Thematically, The World's End touches on material that has been previously explored in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - the previous films in this trilogy - while bringing a new level of maturity to the table, both in the interplay of the cast and Wright's own direction. That said, it is not above being very, very silly when the need arises. The film plays the brave and rather risky trick of making its leading man distinctly unlikeable in the initial stages. Pegg's Gary King is a man who has not grown from the day he left school, mainlining the recent British obsession with nostalgia in reckless, careless form. This is in counterpoint to his contemporaries, who have all followed the seemingly prescribed path of conforming to societal expectations, all charting successful yet possibly mundane careers, family lives and relationships. Gary however returns as the black sheep in search of his scattered flock from school, unwillingly dragging them all back to their fictional home town of Newton Haven to complete what he sees as the greatest moment of his life - the fabled Golden Mile, twelve pubs, and thus twelve pints, in a single night.

For much of its early duration, The World's End could be a standard, small scale British comedy. While the script is genuinely funny at times in its interplay and observation, the constant banter of Pegg's Gary King with the increasingly annoyed and embarrassed foursome of Frost, Freeman, Considine and Marsan often crosses the line into the genuinely uncomfortable and grating - perhaps as is intended. King cuts a slightly tragic figure, so desperate to fulfil an unaccomplished past glory he has never moved beyond that lowly ambition in either his behaviour, appearance, or possessions, a man approaching forty trapped in his teens. It is a brave, challenging performance by Pegg, playing self destruction to the point of losing the sympathy of the audience. This is also similar material to the characterisation in Shaun of the Dead, but here it leaps across a line into emotional realism, the often knockabout fun of Shaun being forced to mature by a zombie outbreak countered by Gary's self denial and fixation on reaching that final pub, with a little thing like a body snatching alien robot invasion not likely to stand in his way.   

Yes, as with the two films before, sleepy British normality is given an adrenaline shot of the high concept when it is revealed that the town is infested by alien 'Blanks', difficult to define extraterrestrial robots that have replaced much of the population with blue blooded, glowing eyed and mouthed action-figure-alike copies. Following the build up, the sudden engagement with a group of the invaders in a pub toilet feels left field, surprising and exhilarating, the five friends forced to fight back in the first of many expertly choreographed action scenes that skirt the edges of martial arts with a slapstick, rougher kind of tumble. The revelation of the invasion forces Nick Frost's Andrew to step up, finally forcing him to confront his past demons with Gary, his former best friend and idol. Frost arguably gives the deepest performance in The World's End, gifted the emotional arc of the film as he goes from completely reluctant participant to ferocious friend by the close - as well as performing perhaps the best, most uproarious sight gag in the film involving the simple act of opening a pub door.

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Away from this central relationship, the other four main cast members are given plenty to do, but much of it encroaches into spoiler territory. We are of course ultimately here for Martin Freeman, who perhaps fulfils that problematic issue most explicitly in the film. Delivering an amiable performance that goes from bookish and prim to overly enthusiastic, chirpy, and friendly, Freeman's fate is explicitly telegraphed at the very start of the film, but then goes way beyond expectations into something far more interesting. He is also the strongest visual clue at the film's interest in the creeping march of technology into our lives, the Bluetooth headset permanently clamped to his ear for the entire film making the striking point about our inability to switch off from near constant communication, and ultimately tying into the invader's true purpose.

Both Paddy Considine and Rosamund Pike give the film a romantic tint, their characters a pairing that never previously reached fruition but begins to blossom in the face of extraordinary circumstances, both impacted by Gary King in the past but now finally growing out of his teenaged shadow. In counterpoint to that, Eddie Marsan gives the quietest but most devastating performance in the film, someone who has always remembered the face of a school bully and never quite recovered from it - with even the act of standing up to his former tormentor a bitter victory.  And filling out the population of Newton Haven is a supporting cast of returning players from the previous films, a who's who of British character and comic actors, with the addition of featured cameos that we would be remiss to spoil in any way.

Considering the film's interest with personal maturity, Edgar Wright's direction has taken a similar step. Expertly shot and blessed with an outstanding 90's soundtrack, this is a more technically restrained effort in terms of the editing and sound design, the smash cuts and sonic bass that has marked his work restricted largely to the simple act of the pouring of a pint at the bar. As previously mentioned, this also extends into the writing, which often twists and turns into unexpected shapes - not least the final ten minutes, which casually drops a wealth of material that could fill a separate and completely different film.  

Indeed, that ending gives us no choice but to inexpertly wield an ice cream analogy to near breaking point. The World's End lives up the mint flavouring of its featured Cornetto, delivering a sharp tang in contrast to the strawberry sweetness of Shaun of the Dead or the rounded vanilla satisfaction of Hot Fuzz, leaving a distinct taste by the close that bravely overwhelms a viewer's palette. It shifts in tone far more than either previous film, finally emerging as almost akin to an alcohol fuelled, potty mouthed instalment of Doctor Who, twisting from delirious comedy to hard edged pathos in the blink of an eye. Locked onto the central pairing of Pegg and Frost, who as always invest their roles with the warmth and strength of their real life friendship, The World's End blends some truly staggering and very British belly laughs with a more serious side that ultimately has much to say about the constant headbutting of nostalgia and technology, and the inherent dangers of both in their extremes.

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