Jun 26, 2017

Why "The Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy" Continues to Endure

With Wednesday's release of Baby Driver, it only feels right to look back at the many films of Edgar Wright. Over the next few days, I will look at various aspects of his career and explore what makes him a singular virtuoso of modern film making. Up first is a look at the trilogy that will likely define his career. It goes by many names, but is often referenced as The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, or The Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy. While the series isn't a strict trilogy in the same way that The Godfather or Toy Story, it does show the potential for what a shared tonal universe can have. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End may all have different genres and plots, but they share common themes. In the process, they reflect how innovative and original Wright is while being highly referential. He created the ultimate nerd trilogy for British comedy enthusiasts and gave cinephiles plenty to discuss in the process. 
It is important to note that The Cornetto Trilogy didn't start as a planned series. In fact, it wasn't that way until AFTER Hot Fuzz was released. During interviews, there was discussion about common threads throughout Wright's last two movies. Of course there was major collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but there was also sight gags and plot points that felt thematically similar. Among the most noteworthy involved clever uses of ice cream and the struggles of climbing over a fence. They were also stories about male bonding as explored through genre tropes and excessive trips to the bar. It makes sense then why Part 3 of the series (The World's End) was essentially a pub crawl narrative that explored the struggles with never growing up. It was the most dramatic of the three, and remains the most divisive. However, it brought the themes of the first two movies to a clear thesis. With all this considered, it's a miracle that one of the least planned trilogies in movie history ended up being so successful on a critical level.
It all began with Wright's breakthrough sophomore film Shaun of the Dead. Following a career that featured the excellent sitcom Spaced, he was already perceived as a cult director. For many, the self-professed zom-rom-com set a template that would become familiar not only for The Cornetto Trilogy, but for comedy in general: male bonding, referred to as "bromance." As much as the film focuses on a middle-class man's (Pegg) struggle to survive the zombie apocalypse, it is as much about coming to terms with his odd relationship to a somewhat reprehensible and socially maladjusted friend (Frost). It's hidden under great gags that include describing the plot of the movie in montage form, and having a jukebox that plays a certain inspired song choice because "It's on random."
The references were largely subtle, or tied to the characters' personalities. Wright's visual language, much like the title, cannot help but reference classic zombie movies even as it explores it through a British sensibility. Yet it is Pegg and Frost who discover just how much they need each other by the end. It's a unique end to a zombie film, largely because it deconstructs romantic comedy tropes as well, suggesting that the break-up that starts the film isn't as important as friendship. The film also featured brisk editing that, as Wright would put it, allows a scene to "arrive late and leave early." This makes things feel tighter and gives the viewer plenty to question as each scene starts. It's stimulation that would only continue to build in the next film.
Wright's intention with Hot Fuzz was to give England its own version of the action film. More so than Shaun of the Dead, the core of the movie feels ingrained to a certain cultural import. Pegg and Frost's friendship even centers around recurring gags related to Point Break and Bad Boys II. There's even a police chase sequence that is a verbatim remake of the Trainspotting opening scene and, to an extent, the plot's twist feels indebted to The Wicker Man (the good one). The whole film continues to explore the bromance of men obsessed with genre movies while showing them in roles of power. The third act is an incredible mix of dark comedy and whiz-bang action sequences that play up Wright's editing with his ability to lampoon Michael Bay's 360 degree shots. Most of all, it does it without sacrificing the story.
It should be said that to a large extent, this is a spiritual trilogy like Kieslowski's Three Colors or Bergman's Faith Trilogy. All of them share thematic similarities, but each film can be enjoyed separately. While there are slight nods to each film within each other that rewards attentive eyes, they are all separate stories that just happen to share certain gags and references. It's the type of connective tissue that shows how strong of a director that Wright is. He loves cinema so much that his visual cues transcend reference and feel genuine. Audiences who don't know won't care. Still, his love for subtle details goes so deep that he even is an expert at cameos, such as Hot Fuzz's Peter Jackson and Cate Blanchett both in blink-and-you'll-miss-it disguises.
Even if they weren't planned as such, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz do reflect a growing maturity that is seen both in Wright, Pegg, and Frost's collaborative abilities, and in how they perceive the characters. Shaun of the Dead was largely a film about a slacker being forced to fight for survival. Hot Fuzz was about a responsible man trying to fight for justice while also being appreciative of the sillier things in life. It more directly explores the importance of seemingly pointless action movies, and how they can make life more fun. It's escapism, but through a lens of already established responsibility. It is the ideal character in The Cornetto Trilogy, and one that overshadows the somewhat dark and depressing third film The World's End, which feels more like a commentary on Shaun of the Dead if Shaun never grew into Hot Fuzz's Nicholas Angel and, at very least, got a job.
The World's End focuses around a reunion that involves a pub crawl. There's the friend who is eager to relive his glory days (Frost) while his friends seem to have moved on. There's plenty of sci-fi elements mixed in. The plot's progression even is met with subtle cues in each pub's name that dictates what's happening next. It's a nostalgic journey into the past, and it is largely a comedic one. There's the odd adventure that is riveting and captures the magic of Wright's direction. However, there's certain things that probably put off audiences initially when it came out. At times it couldn't help but be the third Cornetto Trilogy movie. Audiences were looking for those continuity gags. They wanted to have fun in the same way. Instead, they got a man battered by a drinking problem discovering how miserable his life had become.
Despite never making a drama, there's something at the core of The World's End that feels like Wright summarizing the trilogy's themes in a serious fashion. It is a glorious journey into sci-fi that involves throw downs in bathrooms. However, it also features some of the most vulnerable exploration of bromance tropes. What happens when someone doesn't evolve past their youth? It can be toxic and distressing. Frost captures the delusion nicely as he finds times to explore his most intricate character in between bouts of comedy and action. If nothing else, The World's End is Wright's most complex film to date because it is unapologetic and finds time to explore a subject that is a bit depressing. It is a midlife crisis movie perfectly disguised underneath references, action, and drinking. It's what The Cornetto Trilogy stands for, but it's important to live life in moderation.
It's difficult to judge Wright's work outside of the trilogy in large part because he is meticulous with his films. It's likely that his departure from Ant-Man may deliver his best movie with Baby Driver, but beyond that he has only directed two other movies: A Fist Full of Fingers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The former is very much a debut film that taught Wright the value of coverage. The latter is an oddity because it remains his only adaptation, and one that is steeped in technical wizardry and teenage angst. Still, he looks to have a promising future in which he continues to alter cinema to his image. What he did with The Cornetto Trilogy was explore the struggles of male bonding through genre tropes while also telling original stories that feel indicative of their era, while also managing to be timeless. They're challenging films without being isolating, and that's a large part of what makes him so special as a director. 

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