Since Shaun of the Dead debuted nine years ago, we’ve watched the progression of the Cornetto Trilogy, a loose trilogy of collaborations between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg,and Nick Frost with no recurring characters and only a couple of recurring set pieces. I’m a fan of their thematic trilogy, where instead of getting one story chunked into three pieces that don’t really stand on their own, we get three insular takes on a particular theme. These are much like the Leone/Eastwood/Van Cleef Man with No Name Trilogy without the focus of returning to Westerns each time.
What they do return to, time and again, Is an exploration of what adulthood means, viewed through the filtered of the most popular subgenres of action and Sci-Fi movies. In Shaun we saw the titular character shaken from the quagmire of a dead end existence by a zombie apocalypse. In the next, Hot Fuzz, we saw the opposite side of that coin played out, where the outwardly successful, buttoned up Nicholas Angel learns to break the rules and bring a sense of fun into his life while chasing a serial killer.
And now we arrive at the final entry, The World’s End, where traditionally all the covenants of previous installments are blown up and upended. Now Pegg plays Gary King, who’s embraced life so fully he’s burned through nearly every scrap of goodwill his friends may have had for him. He’s never moved past the night he and his four best friends attempted to visit all twelve pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven. 23 years later, he looks on their failure that night as the moment his life went off track, and sees the successful completion of that crawl as perhaps the way to reboot, or at least mend those bridges he’s burned. And so he ropes those friends, each of whom has nestled into a safe, comfortable, passive existence, into returning to his personal Waterloo. It seems at first they’ve flipped the normal dynamic and present Pegg as the fun loving one shaking Frost out of his flat existence, before the true motivations of the film-makers are revealed.
It’s wonderful watching Pegg and Frost, who have fantastic chemistry, reverse their normal roles. Here Frost is ANdy Knightly, now the responsible one, participating in the pub crawl out of a vestigial sense of pity for Gary. He’s given up the full speed ahead life that consumed his closest friend, and now orders water in pubs. Pegg meanwhile is unleashed, tapping into a manic energy and rapid-fire way of talking that rivals the kinetic style of Wright’s nimble film style. He lies, misunderstands, and wheedles in conversation like a demented version of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. You’re never sure if he’s dumb, damaged, or deceptive.
The remainder of the cast support the lead duo admirably, but it’s Nick and Simon’s show at the end of the day. Watching them make their way through twelve pubs, first discovering the alien invaders who’ve infiltrated their town and then fighting back against that force, you see them open wounds and expose themselves in hilarious ways. In a strange way, it’s as if Gary’s inventing his own personal twelve step program on the fly, with Andy as his unwilling companion, running interference as they move towards some kind of closure at the World’s End. Both give their best performances of the trilogy in this installment.
A special word, too, for Edgar Wright. Wright’s become a sharp director, and the script he and Pegg have written I think stands above the first two in both craft and wit. Shaun was a left field surprise, so naturally there’s a greater affection for that film. It appeared as a true cult classic, arriving with no preconceived expectations. So while Hot Fuzz ably matched it, Shaun still loomed larger, the gold standard the other films would be measured against. But I’d argue their storytelling is far tighter here, and Wright’s visual storytelling is exemplary. The use of the pub signs as portents, for example, or the recursion of the number twelve. There’s a deft touch to the storytelling, a willingness to go for every laugh tempered with a knowledge of when it’s time to abandon the humor.
As with the first two, The World’s End is about finding that balance between responsibility and abandon. In the end, both of this film and the series, we get a hint of which choice they prefer, which side they fall on. It’s a perfect capper to a great series of films. I don’t know if these three will collaborate in the same way again, but if they did truly choose to stop here, we can be satisfied with the pure joy they’ve baked into these films, and the sharp story craft they’ve used to create such thrilling movies.