August has been a particularly rich month for movies that fall between the mindless, overblown summer superhero blockbusters and the polished prestige of the super-serious Oscar brigade to come. Edgar Wright's "The World's End" is the right movie for this moment, a comedy with action and wow-factor effects that's also tinged by regret, a light sadness and a lacerating self-awareness. Even for its flaws, it is hard to ask for more from a late summer movie than "The World's End."
The film finds the director collaborating again with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the trio having burst on the scene with their zombie pastiche "Shaun of the Dead" and cop sendup "Hot Fuzz." Pegg and Frost went on to co-write the lackluster extraterrestrial comedy "Paul" on their own (and Pegg appeared in two "Star Trek" pictures) while Wright made the stellar "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," a film which failed to connect in its initial release but has become something of an instant cult classic. (And rightfully so.)
The reunion behind the camera is apt as the new film concerns a group of five old friends who are brought back together. Gary King (Pegg) has never moved on to a proper adulthood even as his former friends (played by Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) have all made something of themselves in the 20-odd years since high school. Gary hatches a scheme to return to the small town of Newton Haven where they grew up to complete the Golden Mile, having a pint of beer in each of the 12 pubs along the way, finishing at a bar called the World's End.
If the '90s are a hot decade right now for fashion revival and cultural appropriation, Wright and Pegg smartly come at it from the wrong way round, not as retro looking back but through someone who never left: Gary still dresses as he did then and even has the same old cassette tape (cassette tape!) in his car's player. This also allows Wright to pepper the film with now-classic songs from the era of high Brit-pop, including tracks from Blur, Pulp, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Primal Scream's "Loaded" not only plays during the opening credits but uproariously provides the words for Gary's eventual climactic defense of human fallibility.
As the group makes their way from pub to pub, they come to realize that first of all Gary has lured them there under false pretense and second that something has gone very wrong with their town. Come to find out, many of the residents have been replaced by robot versions of themselves. Or, not robots, as there are numerous conversations on the origin and meaning of the word, but rather replacements made from original DNA. Either way, it's weird, it's wrong, and things turn very, very bad.
Amid the action-comedy trappings emerges a sharp story on self-centered nostalgia and personal growth. A sub-story regarding whether Gary is grappling with alcoholism, however, feels crammed in and underserved. Actress Rosamund Pike manages to make a strong impression with an underwritten part, but her bright presence only leaves a sense that more could be done with her character.
The film feels at times like a greatest hits compilation, with jokes that call back to the earlier Wright/Pegg/Frost movies, as well as again exploring ideas of modern small-town Englishness and the sense of the everyday being invaded by something extraordinary. Add the countdown structure of "Scott Pilgrim" and you're somewhere near the basic outline of "World's End." Yet somehow the sureness of Wright's filmmaking sees it through.
Yes, there are arguably a few bars too many on the way to the World's End, not just for the characters but for viewers as well, as the film lags a bit before arriving late at two bold storytelling strokes. One reveals just who is in charge of the replacement people that have taken over the town and the other pushes things even further forward from there.
Wright's style is infectious, such as when the friends walk in choreographed unison about the town, weaving past others in syncopation to the dark jaunt of the Doors' reading of "Alabama Song." As things ramp up, the effects work is dazzling for its seamlessness, with the cinematography by Bill Pope and editing by Paul Machliss capturing the elastic snap of Wright's sensibility. At times, gags whiz by with such speed it can almost be easy to miss something as delightful as Pegg desperately trying to finish a glass of beer as an artfully bonkers Bugs Bunny/Jackie Chan fight erupts all around him.
Few filmmakers working today make movies with quite the same enthusiasm as Wright does. His work is vivid and exuberant, as if he is having fun doing it and more than anything wants to share that feeling, from one fan to another.
Audacious and witty, "The World's End" is a strange brew. It is debatable whether this is Wright's best film — like a favorite band whose best albums can shift about, the list changes based on time and mood — but it is likely the most Edgar Wright of Edgar Wright's films. Neither a full-fledged new beginning but also far from treading water, the movie feels like a celebration, of friendship, collaboration and all that is silly and glorious in the human spirit. We could all do worse.
'The World's End'
MPAA rating: R for for pervasive language including sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In wide releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun