The genius of “Shaun of the Dead,” as the countless fans of the cult hit know, was that it worked as a comedy without satirizing its genre roots. Director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who wrote the script for the 2004 breakout, nimbly superimposed the ingredients of traditional romcoms and buddy movies on an equally by-the-books zombie scenario. The conundrum may have been silly, but Wright took the characters and their flaws dead seriously.
With “The World’s End,” the trio keeps this careful genre balance intact and delivers another satisfying riff on several types of story at once. Another slapdash tale of imminent apocalypse, “The World’s End” occasionally suffers from a more erratic approach, but Wright’s filmmaking infuses the rampant silliness with purpose. It manages to play as much like an ode to kooky alien invasion thrillers as it does to the joys of getting plastered with friends.
“The World’s End” marks the final entry in the so-called Three Cornettos trilogy, Wright’s coy nod to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” movies and the unofficial name for the series of genre-based buddy movies that started with “Shawn of the Dead” and continued with the Pegg-Frost cop-movie-meets-The-Wicker-Man comedy “Hot Fuzz.” In the context of that ongoing collaboration, “The World’s End” never reaches the deliriously entertaining heights of the first installment, but it surpasses “Hot Fuzz” in its anarchic glee and actually consolidates the appeal of both earlier movies into a single, joyfully weird package.
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As usual, old friendships get tested by changing times taken to exaggerated heights, as ominous forces turn a seemingly mundane community into a collective threat. It takes nearly half an hour before the otherworldly component is somewhat clumsily established. Before then, Wright skillfully assembles the pieces of a leisurely character-based comedy.
In the brilliantly assembled opening montage, Gary King (Pegg) recalls in voiceover the halcyon days of his rascally teen years in the quaint British town of Newton Haven, where the black-clad hustler used to lead a posse on a pub crawl he now considers legendary — an undertaking in which they always got so sloshed they never managed to reach the eponymous World’s End bar for one final brew.
The introductory sequence, a snazzy collection of home movie footage documenting the boys’ drunken antics, shows Wright’s colorful filmmaking style at its best: fast and furious, but simultaneously loaded with wit. It’s a good indicator of the goofy screwball adventure to come.
Twenty years after their teen days ended, Gary’s life has devolved into a booze-fueled haze while his former cohorts have moved on and settled down. King finds them at their bland jobs and methodically convinces them to return to Newton Haven for the anniversary of their pub crawl while hoping to finally reach the World’s End. The first few cohorts are relatively easy sells: Meek car salesman Steven (Eddie Marsan), easygoing real estate broker Oliver (Martin Freeman) and affable Peter (Paddy Considine) more or less commit outright; corporate overlord and former best friend Andy (Frost) resists paying heed to his self-destructive old pal until Gary plays the pity card, the first of many cheap shots.
Even as Wright gradually lets the story take hold, however, “The World’s End” moves along at a speedy pace thanks a directorial approach familiar from his earlier movies: scenes tend to begin with a frantic series of close-ups (in this case, beer poured and guzzled in rapid succession), while Pegg and Wright’s screenplay zips along at a fervent clip. Following some banter in Gary’s rundown car about why his jokey classification of them as “The Five Musketeers” doesn’t quite gel, the hedonistic binge begins in earnest…or, at least, Gary desperately tries to get it going, despite the grumpy Andy’s unwillingness to get sloshed.
The two main actors have performed a clever role reversal: In their previous collaborations, Pegg has played the straight man to Frost’s wild man persona; here, Pegg does a terrific job going against type as a scheming partier past his prime but unable to stop barreling forward until the two finally air their dirty laundry in the third act.“The World’s End” establishes this repertoire so distinctly that the movie could very well have stuck with it in plain terms, but a chance encounter between Gary and a strangely monotonous teen in one of the bar restrooms changes everything. After a sudden brawl reveals the younger man to be some kind of robotic creature filled with mechanical blue blood, the group suddenly finds themselves in a fist fight with a roomful of angry teenage machines. While a great metaphor for disgruntled men pushing forty facing down a youth culture they can’t comprehend, it quickly shifts “The World’s End” into zany survival story mode.
Quietly shuffling from one bar to the next to avoid detection from other robots in disguise — in frantic, whispery discussion, they decide to call the invaders “blanks” — the group starts to get a handle on the threat and fight back, driven by Gary’s baffling commitment to keep going so they can finally reach the end of the crawl. Aided by Oliver’s sister and Gary’s longtime crush Sam (Rosamund Pike), the group embarks on a long, comically violent evening of showdowns with robots at every turn. But the despite the action’s slapstick heights, it doesn’t carry the same level of inspiration that Wright and Pegg bring to their characters.
There’s a giddy quality to their capacity to use well-honed martial arts skills as they fight back, but it also breaks with the perception of these goofballs as real, coherent characters in a tangible world in a way the previous entries in The Cornetto Trilogy have not. The battle scenes maintain an absurdist quality akin to the videogame-inspired antics of Wright’s undervalued “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” but they function more as a distraction here.
Even as “The World’s End” erupts into outright absurdity, it lacks a well-defined threat, and when the final puzzles pieces do arrive they possess a noticeably rushed feel. Still, the ultimate message resonates with a wickedly cartoonish finale about the impact of technology on human thought and social connectivity. In the wily epilogue, “The World’s End” veers off in a wonderfully oddball direction, unleashing a final missive to anyone unwilling to recognize the capacity for crowdpleasing genre ingredients to say something legit about the universal flaws of human behavior. It turns out that Gary and his gang speak for all of us.
Regardless of its uneven pace and rough plot devices, “The World’s End” benefits greatly from Wright’s ability to infuse each scene with a sense of play. In the years since “Shaun of the Dead” became a breakthrough hit, it’s grown increasingly clear that Wright and his cohorts are too smart for Hollywood: In the wake of “Scott Pilgrim” bombing at the box office, “The World’s End” has been produced by Universal’s indie arm Focus. Though Wright shows plenty of potential to tackle more familiar terrain, even his stab at the superhero genre sounds distinctly off-kilter (that would be the forthcoming “Ant-Man”). With “The World’s End” — and this is not much of a spoiler — he addresses the disconnect between technological advancements and soul, a takeaway that also functions as an indictment of lesser movies.
Despite its shortcomings, “The World’s End” glistens with a comedic energy not present in equivalent mainstream blockbusters (at this point, its closest U.S. cousin might be the much-derided “Ghostbusters” knock-off “R.I.P.D.”). Even with a mixed bag, Wright still makes a more pleasing spectacle than the market standard. Like his cohort Quentin Tarantino, Wright’s enthusiasm for the material comes across in the work itself, and it’s infectious.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already released overseas, “World’s End” opens in the U.S. on August 23, when it stands a solid chance at good returns during the last surge of summer movie activity as the fervor surrounding tentpoles dies down. Though unlikely to achieve cult status on par with “Shaun of the Dead,” it should please fans and enjoy a healthy life in ancillary markets.