Five men pushing middle age go out drinking and get slaughtered, in some cases quite literally, in “The World’s End,” the latest highly enjoyable exercise in jaunty pastiche from writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-thesp Simon Pegg, the brains behind “Shaun of the Dead,” and “Hot Fuzz.” Although a fraction less gut-bustingly goofy than its predecessors, this sci-fi-themed quest story about a deadly pub crawl has more emotional heft, partly thanks to impressive supporting turns from Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, dramatic heavy lifters who flex strong comic muscles here. Feverish fan anticipation should spell apocalyptic levels of B.O. success in Britain and beyond. It’s due out Stateside Aug. 23 through Focus Features.
Feckless fortysomething man-child Gary King (Pegg) decides to reassemble “the five musketeers,” a band of old friends who haven’t really seen each other since they graduated from high school. Gary wants to have another try at completing the Golden Mile, during which the participants must drink a pint of beer at each of the 13 pubs in their home town of Newton Haven — an adventure they first attempted back in 1990 without getting beyond the sixth drinking den. By tradition, the last stop must be at the World’s End, a common pub moniker in Blighty that acquires extra significance here.
Unlike Gary, who was once the gang’s leader but now barely has the money to launder his Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, the other members of the group now seemingly act their age and hold down proper jobs. In the case of mild-mannered Peter (Marsan, so often the MVP in pics like “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Vera Drake”), that means working at his dad’s car showroom to support his wife and kids. Money-minded Oliver (Martin Freeman) has become a real-estate agent glued to his Bluetooth, while recently divorced Steven (the ever-flawless Considine), perhaps the sharpest of the bunch but without Gary’s cockiness, works in construction. All agree to join in Gary’s scheme, only because he promises that Andrew (Wright and Pegg’s usual wingman, Nick Frost), now a high-powered lawyer, has said he’ll come, too. But it turns out that Andrew has the biggest beef with Gary and is now a teetotaler to boot.
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Nevertheless, once the first act is finished, the men duly begin their trek down memory lane on a summer’s night, only to find that their old stomping ground is not quite the same as they remember it. Most of the pubs, as revealed in one of the pic’s best jokes (and one that Brits will particularly appreciate), have lost much of their unique character. Even creepier is the fact that some local faces are exactly the same, and seem to have barely aged a day.
It’s a bit of a shame that the trailer completely gives away the film’s first big twist (if you care to preserve the surprise, read no further): that residents of Newton Haven have been replaced by mechanical replicants for reasons explained only later. No doubt the marketing departments involved felt it necessary to leak this spoiler in order to sufficiently convey the pic’s horror-thriller aspects, but thankfully there are more twists and surprises in store, stacking reveal upon reveal to near-ludicrous levels that self-consciously evoke the Quatermass films from the 1950s. Other touchstones include the fiction of John Wyndham (“Village of the Damned,” “The Day of the Triffids”), plus big dollops of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (both the 1956 and 1978 versions) and a bit of John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” plus many other references, even to chopsocky classics.
Indeed, the script by Wright and Pegg sometimes feels somewhat crudely carpentered at times to include references exclusively for the delectation of genre-savvy auds. A bit more consideration might have been paid to nuts-and-bolts issues, such as why the hell do the principals keep going along with the pub crawl once it’s apparent that no good, not least for their livers, can ever come from seeing it through. Then again, that sort of devil-may-care attitude toward logic is consistent with the characters themselves.
Deep down, “The World’s End” feels by, about and for the sort of wry, semi-smart, semi-stupid, semi-adolescent blokes (to use a Britishism that perfectly captures the vibe) seen here, which might have alienated more femme viewers if Rosamund Pike weren’t on hand to provide such a spunky, likable rooting interest in her Sam, an object of affection for both Gary and Steven. Most importantly, the core five thesps interlock tightly as an ensemble; the horsepower of their collective comic timing makes some of the chatty, interstitial dialogue note-perfect, even if they’re just shooting the shit.
Bill Pope’s handsome widescreen lensing on good, old-fashioned 35mm adds to the retro vibe, while kudos are also due to Paul Machliss for punchy editing work. Other tech credits are aces.