eaming up for another round of boozing, buddying and B-movie parodying, director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg find themselves getting apocalyptically plastered in their clever and hilarious sci-fi sendup The World’s End. At once a Big Chill-style old-pal reunion story and an Invasion of the Body Snatchers homage doused in beer and bad-boy humor, this third collaboration (after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) between the duo and co-star Nick Frost is a fast and funny action-comedy undercut by moments of midlife nostalgia — the whole shebang held together by terrifically wrought performances, especially from the punch-drunk Pegg.
Released by Universal in the U.K. a month ahead of its U.S. bow, the film should see sizable homeland returns from fans anticipating the final leg of co-screenwriters Wright and Pegg’s cheekily titled “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy (named after the ice cream cone that makes cameos in each movie — though you’ll never guess where they put it here). Stateside, it should play as a gratifyingly light digestif after a long and grueling summer of CGI slaughter, though returns there might fall short of Sony’s similarly titled and themed This Is the End.
For those familiar with the team’s previous efforts — the first of which took on the zombie genre, the second the cop-caper comedy — the antics here might not necessarily seem new, though they are consistently smart and fresh, switching up the bromancing characters played by Pegg and Frost while bringing back supporting stars Paddy Considine (The Bourne Ultimatum) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit), with veteran Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes) joining the gang for the first time.
And while things get a tad buckled town in mayhem and special effects throughout the film’s busy final reels, Wright spends enough time sketching out his mischievous middle-aged men so that their journey — across 12 pubs, dozens of pints and several broken bodies — feels worthwhile and even meaningful for a few of them.
After a grainy flashback reveals five high school friends trying and failing to do “The Golden Mile” pub crawl in their peaceful northern city of Newton Haven, we cut to 20 years later, where their self-appointed leader, Gary (Pegg), is wallowing about the good ole days in group therapy, where he hatches the idea to complete the challenge once and for all. He quickly tracks down divorced architect Steven (Considine) and milquetoast real estate broker Peter (Marsan), who are willing to join him but only if corporate lawyer Andy (Frost) — who bears a major grudge against Gary and has been on the wagon for years – agrees to tag along.
Soon enough, they all wind up back home, and Wright gets much comic mileage out of these early sequences, with Gary dressing and acting like he’s still in the 12th grade as his friends look horrifyingly on, comforted by the fact that they didn’t turn out as bad as he did. But just as things come to a head among them, heads literally start rolling during a bathroom fight between the crew and a band of local thugs, whose easily detachable appendages and buckets of blue blood reveal them to be far from human.
Caught in a city populated by freaky robotlike denizens (with headlight eyes that recall both the three Snatchers films and the John Wyndham adaptation The Day of the Triffids), the boys see no other choice than to continue their bar-hopping until they can escape, though one suspects that Gary really is more interested in binge-drinking than in coming out alive. Meanwhile, the cold-turkey Andy soon turns into the group’s chief boozehound, and Frost’s quick transformation winds up providing some of the film’s drop-dead funniest moments.
But it’s Pegg who truly steals the show, playing an archetypal winner-turned-loser who’s as embarrassing as he is touching — the type of guy who everyone worships until they grow up and get a life, leaving him inevitably behind. His character also gets some of the movie’s best lines, referring to a glass of water as drinking “f—– rain,” and claiming, in a riotous late plea, that “it’s our basic right as humans to be f— ups.”
Despite the gradual f/x overkill in the final segment, Wright and DP Bill Pope (The Matrix) manage to dish out plenty of visual wit, making the many bar brawls, torn limbs and exploding heads both colorful and creative and leaving enough room for their characters to develop amid the chaos. Production design by regular Marcus Rowland amusingly pokes fun at the faux-retro look of modern pubs, while sharp editing by Paul Machliss keeps up the pace despite a somewhat stretched 109-minute running time.
Tipping its hat to all the late-’80s/early-’90s music that Gary and friends grew up with, the soundtrack is chock-full of hits by Blur, Pulp, The Soup Dragons and The Happy Mondays, with a major shout-out to gothic rock band Sisters of Mercy — featured in a song, a vintage T-shirt and a rather shameful chest tattoo.
Production companies: A Focus Features presentation in association with Relativity Media, of a Working Title production in association with Big Talk Pictures
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriters: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Producers: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: James Biddle, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Music: Steven Price
Editor: Paul Machliss
Special effects supervisor: Chris Reynolds
Rated R, 109 minutes