This is a film I've been curious about since its first announcement, both as the awaited spiritual successor/conclusion to the series started with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and both for the statements made in interviews leading up to the film's genesis, of the film's creative team exploring the idea of getting older in a genre where the man-child archetype has become something of the norm.
The result, while a bit unusual and a little jarring at times, is still a largely satisfying finale that proves well worth the wait.
The film's story, in as spoiler-free a way as I can sum it up, is first introduced to us by protagonist Gary King (Simon Pegg,) a former high school bad boy who recounts, in flashback, what he considers to be the peak of his glory days - a fateful night when he and four of his friends took on the challenge of the Golden Mile: a 12 bar pub crawl. The night was eventful, intoxicating, and incomplete. In present day, Gary decides this is the time to go back and finish the fight - but he's not going alone: he wants his old friends (played by Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan) to join him, whether they want to or not. So, the reluctantly reunited group returns to their old home town to partake of this last pub crawl. To their surprise, their old home town seems kind of strange. People don't recognize them, or don't seem to have aged. At first they brush this off as being on them: time has changed, they've changed, etc. As the night goes on, however, they find the town has changed as well - and is now a launching off point for an alien occupation of Earth.
...you know, nothing they can't handle after a few beers.
Like the first two installments in the TFC trilogy, this movie runs with the idea that its story can still stand on its own without necessarily needing the genre riffing. In a bit of a shift, the genre riffing is less pronounced in this film than it was in the prior two. There is definitely a play on alien invasion films - most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers - prevalent in the movie. Yet at times it almost feels secondary to the character interaction between the group. That said, the characterization is arguably the strongest element of this movie. Both in terms of comedy and general writing, the movie works at its best with the interaction between the group of friends. As in the prior two movies, amid the various tweaks of various genre cliches, there was still a core message about the characters in focus: in SotD, it was getting your life in order and stepping up for those you really care about; in Hot Fuzz, it was trying to balance not being too rigid in life with not being too complacent in it either (Pegg and Frost starting out at the two extremes before each comes to more of a middle ground); here, as said above, it's the idea of reconciling your past. While Pegg is arguably the most pronounced case of this, we see examples of it in all of the members of the group to extents: Freeman's Oliver is at first hesitant to revisit his past, and at first is the most visibly annoyed with Gary over the whole thing; Considine's Steven has been trying for years to get over the girl who got away (Rosamund Pike) only to find out she's still there when they return; Marsan's Peter has an old wound reopened care of a former tormentor, a plot point that climaxes in a scene that's as gratifying as it is sadly unsettling thanks to how Marsan plays it; and finally Frost's Andy, who we learn parted ways with Gary over some rather dark events. Having Gary desperately try and revive the past causes each of these people to confront, and in their own ways, deal with that balance of who they were and who they are now. Some overcome it with more success than others. Unfortunately, I can't really explain further on this point without spoiling.
On the note of the core cast, I do have to make a particular shout-out for Pegg on this one. Of his three roles in the trilogy, and honestly, of his career in general, Gary King may be one of his best performances to date. This is somewhat surprising considering that Gary is arguably one of the most obnoxious and unlikable characters you could hope to meet - and he's like that by design. In many ways, Gary is the old established comedic trope of the man-child played completely straight, and Pegg doesn't try to soften the negative parts. This isn't to say he doesn't get some laughs - he certainly gets a fair number - but he also doesn't shy away from the fact that someone so attached to the past as Gary is WOULD come across as sad and somewhat conniving in a lot of ways. You can see why his friends both seem to dislike him, but still haven't got the heart to just drop out on him entirely. He's a jerk, but he's not without his sympathy - particularly in the third act, but again, I can't go into that one too much.
I couldn't have asked for a better screencap to sum him up than this.
Outside of the character interaction, the overall plot feels somewhat relegated to the background. It's not bad, but it doesn't really resonate quite the same way as the performances do. Though I do have to certainly hand Wright and Pegg some extra brownie points here for the number of clues and signs of a full circle plot the movie works in. Things like the pub names reflecting what's happening in the story, and the fact that the group's decision making process becomes increasingly worse, though their fighting improves, as they get more drunk are little touches that really speak to the thought that got put into the storyline on this one.
Of course, even with all that thought, the script does have a few problems - most notably with the alien plot. It makes for an compelling mystery at the start of the film, but when all the cards are on the table in the final act, it feels somewhat anticlimactic. The message behind them is certainly interesting (Wright has said in interviews the film's invaders are in part a message about the sort of branding that is spreading throughout England, here embodied in the uniform design of all the pubs,) but it feels like a thought that would be better used in another film entirely. Additionally, the third act suffers from a rather severe case of emotional whiplash. It's not necessarily a bad shift per se, and it makes for a well done surprise character shift to work with, but it also can potentially be problematic for some viewers to work with. Otherwise, the only other real grievance I can say on this is with regards to the film's epilogue. This, again, isn't bad in and of itself, it provides some nice closure on everyone, but it DOES also run a bit longer than it probably needs to.
In terms of direction, the film is very much up to par with the first two installments - containing many of the same sharp edits and camera work that made these films stand out in the first place. Likewise, this film handles its fights with a surprising level of energy and creativity for a comedy. A highlight in this being one brawl where Frost wields two barstools as weapons; words can't do it justice, you really need to see it to get why this one works. This energy and directorial vision are certainly welcome here, as they're a big part of what helps keep the movie trucking through the somewhat shaky third act. Paired with the sharp work by the cast and a well-employed soundtrack, everything else about the movie still manages to fire on all cylinders.
Even this screencap only starts to do it justice. It just works that well in motion.
All in all, it's not a bad note to send these films off on. It's not perfect, but even the downsides aren't particularly crippling ones, and when the films does things well, it does them VERY well. It didn't all hit me right away, but more and more I am actually still very satisfied with this as an end point for the films. It's actually a bit of a shame to see them off, but hopefully the team may still work again in the future - I know I'd look forward to it.
Well, with summer wrapping up, that means...yep, time to wrap up the last of the Summer Reading (two entries left to go on those, guys. You're not getting away that easy!)
Of course, other entries will be coming up alongside them as well. At this rate, will be caught up by the weekend!