Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
Finally — finally! — the most entertaining movie of the summer arrives, just as August is coming to a close.
Actually, “The World’s End” might be the best time you’ll have at the movies all year. It is a complete blast: urgently paced, hilariously clever and blisteringly profane.
The latest genre tweak from director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, following 2004′s “Shaun of the Dead” and 2007′s “Hot Fuzz,” is simultaneously their most ambitious and their most effective. Whereas “Shaun” was a satirical send-up up zombie horror and “Fuzz” had fun with mismatched buddy-cop conventions, “The World’s End” dares to take on a genre that’s even larger and more complex, at least from a technical perspective: the sci-fi apocalypse extravaganza.
But it’s also about the notion of the end of the world from a personal perspective — about the loss of a sense of adventure, about growing up and getting lame — and the nostalgic lengths to which we’ll go to recapture that sense of youthful vibrancy. An elaborate pub crawl is all that stands in the way of one man and his personal destiny — or destruction.
Pegg is that Peter Pan figure opposite a buttoned-down Frost in a reversal of the roles they played in “Hot Fuzz.” It’s an ensemble comedy, with excellent British character actors Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan rounding out the drunken crew. But Pegg, who co-wrote the script with Wright as usual, damn near steals the entire movie through sheer force of will. His Gary King is an insane whirlwind — charismatic but clueless, and also clearly damaged and needy. When he’s on screen, you can’t stop watching him. I was only half-joking on Twitter when I suggested starting a best-actor Oscar campaign for Pegg now; he shows that much range and he’s that good.
As much of a stunted, self-centered screw-up as Gary is, though, he also ends up being the voice of reason when society gets broken down to its basest elements and most primal instincts. But first: beer, and lots of it.
At the film’s start, Gary is reminiscing during a group therapy session about the highlight of his youth and, as it turns out, his entire life: attempting to conquer “The Golden Mile,” an epic quest of drinking a pint of beer at each of the 12 pubs in his quaint English hometown of Newton Haven over one night. As we see in a flashback, he and his four best mates tried to make it from one end to the other to celebrate their high school graduation in June 1990 — and failed. Now, Gary realizes he must complete the mission in order to attain the sense of satisfaction and self-worth that’s eluded him all this time.
But he can’t do it alone, so he rounds up the rest of “The Five Musketeers,” as he calls them, all of whom are in varying states of reluctance to join him: fastidious real estate agent Oliver (Freeman); wealthy architect Steven (Considine); meek car salesman Peter (Marsan); and the toughest get of all, his former best friend Andy (Frost), a corporate lawyer who hasn’t spoken to him or had a drink in 16 years.
While they’ve all carved out traditional lives for themselves with careers and wives and kids, Gary has happily maintained the outlook of an impetuous teenager, with the wardrobe to match. That includes his vintage Sisters of Mercy black T-shirt to go with his cherished cassette of tunes from that magical era. (As in their other films, the soundtrack to “The World’s End” is great, full of early-’90s hits from British bands including The Stone Roses, Blur, Happy Mondays and The Soup Dragons.)
Reuniting as a group for the first time in a long time, they naturally need a few pubs and a few pints to get reacquainted and loosen up. The fluid editing that’s a signature of the trio’s films is thrillingly on display on these early stops, creating an infectious energy. Who wouldn’t want to go drinking with these guys? But Pegg and Wright’s script is as sharply observant in the low-key moments as it is wildly hilarious exchanges; the arrival of Rosamund Pike as Oliver’s sister — whom Gary and Steven still pine for — adds another touch of humanity.
And then all hell breaks loose.
I would not dream of giving away any clues as to the source of the mayhem in this seemingly tranquil hamlet. The tonal shift comes quickly, but it absolutely works. It is just the most amazing thing to watch: “The World’s End” becomes a totally different kind of movie about halfway through — intense, paranoid, violent — yet maintains the dry, rapid-fire wit that made its earlier scenes such a joy to watch. It also goes into more dramatic territory than “Shaun” or “Fuzz” ever dared, allowing the actors more vulnerability in the past — especially Pegg and Frost — and they rise beautifully to the challenge.
Maybe “The World’s End” goes over the top in its effects-laden climax. But when you have the balls — and the brains — to smash genres the way Wright & Co. do, you may as well smash them to bits.