Years after personal lives and personal betrayals tore them apart, Gary King (Simon Pegg) shows up on the individual doorsteps of his high school friends Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), Peter Page (Eddie Marsan), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) and convinces them, against their better judgment, to join him on a trip back to their hometown of Newton Haven, where they'll make a second run at The Golden Mile, a path of one pint in each of the city's 12 pubs. Upon arriving, however, two things become clear: one, that Gary's problems go beyond desperate childhood nostalgia, and two, that something very unusual has happened to the residents of their tiny little village.
The World's End is the third in director / co-writer Edgar Wright and co-writer / actor Simon Pegg's "Cornetto" or "Blood and Ice Cream" thematic trilogy of genre riffs (previously: 2004's Shaun of the Dead and 2007's Hot Fuzz). The first two films were written while the duo (along with crucial co-star Nick Frost) were still cult figures, mostly known in the UK. In the six years since then, Pegg has become world-famous thanks to the Abrams' Star Trek movies, and Wright has jumped into American movies (Scott Pilgrim in 2010, Marvel's Ant Man is next), and the popularity of both movies has only grown. It's unsurprising, then, that The World's End actively subverts the audience's expectations for what the third chapter might be, adding a layer of real-world complexity to the recipe.
In the first two films, Pegg played square-ish protagonists, while Frost served as the crass and / or boyish sidekick. Here, they trade off: Gary is only interested in drinking and reliving the group's glory days, while Andy has thrown himself into responsible adulthood after a brutal falling out with Gary. Their interactions are terse, laced with resentment and anger, which only builds to nervous peaks whenever Gary says the wrong thing (which is always). Both actors are excellent, even robbed of their usual comic chemistry; Pegg allows Gary to be absolutely excruciating while underlining his heartbreaking desperation, and Frost would disappear into Andy's cold exterior were it not for his impeccable physical comedy. Eddie Marsan also stands out among an all-star British cast, hitting every note of his character's emotional arc.
More importantly, Pegg and Wright's screenplay cuts a little deeper than the previous two. All three films examine the idea of maturity, but The World's End goes for the jugular. Shaun of the Dead is truly a masterpiece of comic timing and repetition, but even when that film succeeds on an emotional level, Shaun's journey to maturity via zombie apocalypse is more a backdrop for the humor than anything. Here, the core story is Gary's alcoholism and his insistence on re-opening past traumas. The science-fiction aspects of the film are certainly important, but the genre love takes a backseat to the film's message about the poisonous power of living in the past. The film criticizes "Starbucking," a process that turns many of Newton Haven's pubs into carbon copies of each other, with chalkboard menus and only one beer selection, but it also warns that wishing the soul hadn't gone out of places isn't the same as forcibly trying to bring it back.
There are some drawbacks, namely the near-absence of female characters (Rosamund Pike is fun, but her limited role relies on too many repeated gags), and less of the polish and fine-tuning that the first two films had (disappointing, but understandable, considering everyone's busy schedule). On the other hand, Wright adds even more highlights to an already intimidating action reel with multiple long-take fight scenes that whirl around choreography straight out of a Jackie Chan movie, and the film builds to an absolutely wonderful climax, which is hilarious and human and worthy of a Douglas Adams novel. In a summer full of half-baked movies, it's great to see one that actually sticks the landing. There's also an unexpected coda, which is likely to be perplexing to many viewers, but (without saying too much), it's a manifestation of everything laid out in the scene before it. It's a tough world, and sometimes getting along with one another is a challenging and frustrating experience. Then again, it'd be a shame to see it go.
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