It’s the end of the world as we know it, or at least the end of their hometown as a group of middle-aged British men return for a nostalgic reenactment of their last high school pub crawl in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. Other critics have gone on at some length about the end of the trilogy of thematically related films that began with Sean of the Dead and includes Hot Fuzz. If you liked either of those movies, action comedy in general, or Simon Pegg, pour yourself a pint (root beer, if you’re under age, please) and sit back for an adventure.
Once again Simon Pegg plays a socially maladjusted semi-hero. This iteration takes the form of Gary King, the popular kid from high school who never moved on. Freshly released (or escaped) from some sort of rehab, he sets off to gather his old friends to reenact their glory days. This leads to a crisp serving of verbal and situational humor as Gary lies, manipulates, and cajoles four unwilling friends to go along with his Quixotic mission.
The first thirty minutes of the film almost exists as a short story unto itself, but it does well. There’s a delightful repartee among the old friends, who have Gary’s measure and follow in a state of bemused disbelief that oscillates between an intervention and people watching a particularly energetic monkey in a zoo. Edgar Wright takes something of a gamble putting a short-story length introduction before he gets to his main story premise, but it’s a gamble that pays off largely due to the strong acting abilities of his cast. Once again it seems that comedians do far better at drama than dramatists do at comedy, and they dip in and out of weighty moments back to adolescent humor with a praiseworthy fluid skill. As the social situation dials “awkward” up to eleven, an interesting commentary appears. For all that Gary King’s Peter Pan complex is devoid of real growth or meaning, the others have embraced the adult world and found that their lot isn’t immensely more rewarding than Gary’s obsession with the past.
Classical criticism of story telling would still hang the short story out to dry because it doesn’t tell the primary action, except for a few redeeming factors. First, the short story puts the characters in position for the primary action. Second, there is a complete, if episodic, dramatic climax for the short story that is deftly turned into the start of the primary action. Finally, and most surprisingly, Pegg and Wright (they collaborated for the screenplay) don’t abandon the character dynamics and personal quests from their mundane lives, but weave resolutions and complications of them throughout the increasingly blatant action plot. The gamble pays off in spades, and the result is a much more complete sense of satisfaction when the ending comes along with its twists and revelations.
Edgar Wright’s films tend to draw on established genres for humor, and it’s time for the alien-invasion film montage. There are homages to the great works of B-movie cinema woven through almost every scene. Take some Stepford Wives, throw in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, some of The Faculty thanks to a young gang of pseudo high school kids, themselves a clever symbol of the emptiness of Gary’s fixation (that’s right folks, body snatchers are hollow) on his youth, and the second-guessing identity conundrums that we’ve enjoyed since the original The Thing, and those are just the homages that I can remember off the top of my head.
Intellectual or not, there is nothing in this movie that is not fun! Battling space aliens during a pub crawl means bar brawls, and the fight choreography is a special delight, just at the edge of fantastic believability. I could do an entire review of this aspect of the film alone, but only fellow martial arts geeks would get much out of it. The fighting is ornate, but unlike so much fighting since the Shaw Brothers, it carries a spontaneous, almost manic energy of a real fight that makes the fantastic seem plausible in the moment. This is a truly rare gift. Stunt coordinators Bradley James Allen and Adam Kirley can choreograph any movie I watch, any day.
There are many other fun things about this movie, including an ending I did not anticipate, but could not fault, and fit the story completely, just one more treat at the end of a night well-spent. Highly recommended.