Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been friends onscreen for a decade, and even longer if you count their work on the late-90s sitcom Spaced. Before Apatovian bromances like I Love You Man put a fine point on it, Pegg and Frost were out there embodying the tight friendships of delayed adolescence, two grown men who relied on each other, loved each other, and helped each other fight off zombies, violent village elders and the constant threat of growing up. Which is why it's heartbreaking, in The World's End, to see them at odds.
The conclusion of the much-loved Cornetto Trilogy and practically a tribute to the notion of putting away childish things, The World's End is what happens when old friendships and an adoration of the past aren't enough to face turning 40. Pegg is the central figure once again as Gary King, the leader of his high school pack back in the early 90s now dead set on reuniting the gang and finally completing the Golden Mile, a pub crawl through 12 stops in their sleepy hometown of Newton Haven. In a quick opening voiceover and montage Gary remembers they first time they tried the Golden Mile as teenagers as, without any irony, the best night of his life. It's not a surprise, exactly, that it's then revealed he's telling this story in the midst of an AA meeting, but a hint that the carousing and reminiscing to come will include a consistently dark edge.
Gary, now older but still wearing the trench coat and dyed black hair of his 17-year-old self, rounds up his old pals in what he thinks is a rescue mission into their dull lives-- Oliver (Martin Freeman) sells real estate, Steven (Paddy Considine) is recently divorced and Peter (Eddie Marsan) is overwhelmed by family obligations. Director Edgar Wright knows perfectly well we're waiting for the Pegg-Frost reunion and saves Frost for last as Andy, a high-powered lawyer who hasn't just moved on from Gary, but actively loathes him. The reasons for that, and the dark tangle that still unites these former friends, take a while to emerge. But once again, Wright, Pegg (who co-wrote the script) and Frost are emphasizing that playtime is over. Shaun prevented the zombie apocalypse and Nicholas Angel learned to be a better cop, but some wounds from the past never heal over.
Once the gang returns to Newton Haven and the pub crawl begins the film takes a turn that's only unexpected if you haven't seen Wright's previous genre mashups; the town has apparently been taken over by humanoid robots who seem normal, if a little stiff, until they try to rip off your head. There's a conspiracy plot, Pierce Brosnan gets involved, and it all ends to a showdown at, inevitably, The World's End, the last stop on the crawl. The blend of genre and character is weaker here that it's been in any Wright film, and though the pod people invasion works fine as a metaphor for losing touch with your childhood touchstones, it doesn't achieve enough symmetry with Gary's alcoholism, a much bigger problem than his crushing nostalgia. The robots are well designed, with glowing blue eyes and mouths and some intimidating physical skills, and the fight scenes are exquisitely shot by Wright, who is easily now one of the best directors of action currently working. But when the mayhem slows down and we return to the issues between the five guys, the transition is awkward; in all of Wright's previous films, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World included, we learned about our characters through action, but in The World's End the two are on separate, equally pleasant tracks.
Luckily, and inevitably, the movie is very, very funny to make up for its awkward spots, and Pegg and Frost benefit enormously in being joined by a gang of equally able actors. Marsan continues to be one of the best character actors working, and get probably the most out of the fewest lines as the meek Peter, who has both a heartbreaking encounter with a former bully and gets to try out some action chops. Freeman loosens up beautifully from his Bilbo/John Watson work, even though he's playing a stuffed shirt here too, and Considine emerges as the surprising romantic hero when his old crush-- and Gary's old fling-- Sam (Rosamund Pike) shows up in one pub. The high school relationships between the pals are pretty thinly sketched in the beginning of the film, but by the midway point we understand these guys, and they're worth following even through the chaotic robot chases that start to feel like a distraction from the real story.
Pegg and Frost remain at the center, though, especially when Andy's anger with Gary comes to a head, and near the end they share the film's most intense scene, grappling with each other and screaming and crying-- all the things that male friends in comedies never, ever do. The scene is an odd fit with the highs-stakes action that surrounds them, but it's also a powerful reminder of how far these two friends have come, and how-- with Wright always completing their trio-- they've created so many different, affecting portraits of cinematic friendship. The World's End isn't likely to be the end of this partnership, and as a finale it's a fair bit weaker than the previous two entries. But it serves as a bittersweet, marvelously effective end of a certain goofy era, when friends banding together were enough to save the world.