‘The World’s End’ Review
I'd call it something of a coup that 'The World's End' - sloppy drunk though its plotting may be - so well captures the melancholy essence of men accepting, with varying success, that somehow they got old. Even though Gary King (Simon Pegg) refuses to grow up, he's caught in an early-90s time warp, still listening to mixed tapes of Soup Dragons and Stone Roses and still thinks about his high school guidance counselor. When he spies a gaggle of young punks in his quiet hometown of Letchworth he sees them as a natural threat to his entire way of life.
While subtext, this emotional material "works" in 'The World's End,' mostly due to Pegg's striking performance - a dark turn from him that mixes the sad, antic clown of early Bill Murray with a dash of genuine self-destructive menace. Also, and this is a compliment, the character drama refuses to take a back seat to the lunacy driving the plot.
A "normal" movie would have well-enough material with Gary's crisis, especially when he gathers his old group of well-integrated-into-society mates to try and finish the legendary pub crawl from their youth. Director Edgar Wright and Pegg's first feature film collaboration, of course, was 'Shaun of the Dead,' so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise when the kids (and nearly everyone else in town) turns out the be robots with bright, blue blood that squirts out when they are decapitated.
As our reunited chums - Pegg, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and especially Nick Frost - get more and more drunk (and uncover the sci-fi conspiracy), the outrageous fight scenes and clumsy destruction increases. Nick Frost is a force of nature, and a hero to those of us in the higher waistband range. His kick-assery against the blue-goo robots is very unique, an unleashed WWE behemoth that is among the more entertaining things you'll see all year.
During all this, the zings fly faster than do the fists. There's running-gag wordplay at mach speed that I'm certain is impossible to catch in its entirety on first viewing. (My favorite was the repeated aside of phrases with conjunctive clauses pitched as band names - look for potential mock tour shirts from Gary King and the Enablers.) The sparkle of the dialogue turns into a full-on conflagration as Pegg and Frost get into a climactic, somewhat-slurred shouting match with the head of the interplanetary menace behind the spooky robots. It's of Monty Python-level loquaciousness, but character-driven – a very craftily written sequence.
A night of heavy drinking is fun, but it usually comes with costs. Alas, in the light of day, much of the top-level plot in 'The World's End' doesn't make too much sense. The grand scheme of the villains is a little wobbly and I'm not quite 100% what the "rules" are, other than the robots have the ability to turn into scary blue heads that reminded me of the Journey 'Frontiers' album cover.
In the moment, though, as the beer suds massage the brain cells, it's all good for a laugh, but as a complete narrative it can be a little vexing. One minute Frost seems 100% determined to get Pegg to achieve the booze-gulping closure he needs, the next he's trying to save him from himself. An argument can be made, I'm suppose, that this is a fairly accurate depiction of old friends with a score to settle getting blind drunk, but considering all the other moving parts of this film it comes across as uneven.
I've been trying to figure out where 'The World's End' fits in compared to the previous Wright/Pegg/Frost collaborations 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz.' While I still think that 'Shaun' is truly something special and that 'Fuzz' definitely goes on too long, the three films share such commonality in tone that, quite frankly, there may not be much point in trying to separate them. Despite the somewhat scattered feeling I get coming out of 'The World's End,' I hope this group continues to collaborate - the keg is far from tapped-out.
Disclosure: Whereas most of the films I see for review are shown to me in comfortable screening rooms or rented multiplex theaters, the American distributors of 'The World's End' invited a handful of press members to the red carpet premiere in London. It's not the first time I've seen a film for review in such a manner, but it was the first time that, the day before the showing, visiting journalists were treated to a night out at a British pub with the movie's director. Nevertheless, when the lights dim all of that fades away and it is just me and the movie. If you don't believe that I can review this film without bias, there's probably not much I can do to convince you otherwise.
'The World's End' opens in theaters on August 23.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.