Zippy, kinetic and brashly funny, "The World's End" comes to the U.S. from its native England hard on the heels of "This Is the End," an American comedy about ordinary mortals (comedians, actually, so maybe not so ordinary) manning up to deal with apocalyptic plot developments. "World's End," a collaboration among director Edgar Wright, co-writer and star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost, joins the trio's earlier genre scrambles "Shaun of the Dead" (zombie invasion plus rom-com) and "Hot Fuzz" ("Bad Boys"-brand action movie plopped down in Miss Marple land).
For a while, you think you've wandered into the wrong movie. Every trailer, poster and short-hand description of "The World's End" in existence mentions the alien robot "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" angle, yet for a good while Wright's film is simply the story of a 40ish London bloke Gary King (Pegg) struggling with his alcohol addiction yet determined to reunite the old gang for another go at the 12-pub crawl that defeated them at age 19, back in their green, gray hometown of Newton Haven.
Upon their return, everything's slightly off. The pubs have all been standardized ("Starbucked," as one of the guys puts it). Old drinking acquaintances fail to recognize Gary and his mates, played by a marvelous quartet of actors. Frost portrays the reformed pub conqueror, now a well-to-do, soft-spoken investment type, whose proximity to Gary spells a probable tumble off the wagon. Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit"), Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine fill out the dance card, along with Rosamund Pike as the one Gary adored once upon a time.
The movie is madly, wonderfully at odds with itself. As with "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," the multiple personalities of the project pay off. This one's also grown-up enough to look at Gary's arrested development as not simply a charming boy-man quirk but something holding him back. (In this regard "The World's End" is the opposite of the "Hangover" movies.) When decapitated, or limb-lopped, the robot replicas taking over the town bleed blue goo, which is an interesting sight. Wright stages the fight sequences (one too many, I'd say) as Jackie Chan-inspired melees, with the fearsome fivesome clobbering the aliens with anything and everything available, including pub stools.
At this stage in their careers, Pegg and Frost have done so much together on screen, and so smoothly and well, their communication skills border on the surreal. I do wish Pegg had found more variations on the theme of pop-eyed mugging to pull in the early scenes; Gary is meant to be a bit tiresome, the party boy who won't stop, but Pegg is, in fact, a better, subtler actor than you see here. Nonetheless, he's the spark plug of Wright's party. "The World's End" has the blithe, skillful air of: Take it or leave it.
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, including sexual references).
Running time: 1:49.
Cast: Simon Pegg (Gary King); Martin Freeman (Oliver Chamberlain); Nick Frost (Andy Knightley); Rosamund Pike (Sam).
Credits: Directed by Edgar Wright; written by Wright and Simon Pegg; produced by Eric Fellner, Nira Park and Tim Bevan. A Focus Features release.