Writer/director Edgar Wright first became known in the U.K. for the TV series “Spaced.” His fame spread internationally when he reteamed with “Spaced” stars/cowriters Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to make “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), the freshest zombie comedy to crawl out of that genre's grave in ages. The three got back together for “Hot Fuzz” (2007), which was even better. And in 2010, Wright's adaptation of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was one of the year's best movies, way underrated on release.
He's back with buddies Pegg and Frost again for the sort-of-apocalyptic comedy, “The World's End,” yet another first rate effort — similar enough in setup to qualify as, more or less, “Shaun of the Body Snatchers.” Pegg plays Gary, an irritating yet charismatic 40-year-old motormouth. Having stayed faithful to his youthful wild self, he is now a man without a place. He suddenly decides to bully his four best high school friends (Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine), all of whom have jobs and families, into the sort of adventure they used to indulge in.
Twenty years earlier, they tried to do a marathon pub crawl, hitting all their home town's drinking establishments in a predetermined order. The idea was to be able to drink one pint of beer at each of 12 pubs, finishing up at the World's End. They only got up to nine, despite Gary's enthusiasm. Now, 20 years later, Gary insists that they return to Newton Haven, their miserable little village, and, starting from scratch, finish their abortive effort. With lies and guile, he manages to corral all of them, even the former best mate (Frost) who has, with justification, refused to talk to him for years.
On the crawl, Gary tries to convince them of the beauty of their youth and their mistake in being willing to change — i.e., grow up. The others are just about to ditch him when they realize that while Newton Haven looks just the same, most of its citizens are not at all the same: They are in fact some kind of alien invaders who have taken over looks and identities. This is essentially a riff on Don Siegel's great 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” its several remakes and several other knockoffs. Wright makes no bones about it, deliberately restaging several famous shots. Near the end, he also tips his hat to “The Road Warrior.”
Wright has the ability to keep things amazingly funny without detracting a bit from the suspense and anxiety. He and cowriter Pegg have put together the best rapidfire screwball dialogue since the Coen Brothers' “Intolerable Cruelty.” The characters are like Abbott and Costello on crank. Unsurprisingly, these exchanges are sometimes hard to follow, with the accents compounding the problem. This is another of those films that I look forward to seeing on disc so that I can pause and absorb jokes that fly by too fast to be absorbed by the human brain.
In addition to suspense and humor, “The World's End” also gets emotional at points near the end in a manner that didn't feel artificial at all. After Wright's three hilarious predecessors, he's still batting 1,000. How many can match that?
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun