Having taken hilarious aim at two of the movie genres they loved in their youth — zombie horror in “Shaun of the Dead” and buddy-cop action in “Hot Fuzz” — director Edgar Wright and his co-writer/star Simon Pegg now train their sights on the subject of nostalgic obsession itself. In “The World’s End,” Pegg plays a man who’s stuck in the past, bogged down in yearning reminiscence, and who can’t seem to wriggle free. Wright says this is the last film in what will now stand as a trilogy, and it’s a solid — and still hilarious — signoff.
I’m a little conflicted about how much to say about this movie. I managed to avoid learning anything about it before seeing it, so the major narrative twist that occurs about a third of the way through the picture was a head-spinning surprise. If only everyone could experience it that way. But the movie’s trailer gives some of it away (pre-release publicity is a stern master), so I think it’s fair to say that the movie is also a tribute to apocalyptic sci-fi films of the 1950s and ’60s (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Village of the Damned,” the British “Quatermass” films), with passing shoutouts to such cultural effluvia of the 1980s and ’90s as old Soup Dragons singles and Sisters of Mercy T-shirts. Let’s say no more.
The central character is Gary King (Pegg), a man who feels, at 40, that his best years are long behind him. Twenty years ago, Gary was a popular party guy in his provincial hometown of Newton Haven. But the partying never stopped, and now he’s a somewhat less popular guy in weekly rehab meetings. Meanwhile, his old school pals have moved on into adulthood. Andy (Nick Frost) is a teetotal lawyer. Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a real estate agent. Peter (Eddie Marsan) sells high-end cars. And Steven (Paddy Considine) is a construction executive.
Gary is fixated on a legendary pub crawl that he and the boys once undertook — a nightlong mission to drink one pint of beer at each of 12 different pubs, starting out at a place called The First Post, stumbling on through such favorite locals as The Trusty Servant, The Two Headed Dog and The Famous Cock, to wind up, staggering, at the celebrated World’s End. Back in the day, most of the lads succumbed to gastric distress and simple unconsciousness and had to drop out. Now Gary wants to restage that epic event and this time see it through to the bitter end (or “the lager end,” as he puts it). Still resident in suburbia, he sets out for London, where his more levelheaded pals now live, intent on recruiting them for auld lang syne. His onetime friends are appalled — by his disheveled appearance, his dated wardrobe and the battered cassette of vintage hits he still plays in his beat-up car. But they finally give in, and soon the old gang has reassembled back on its old home turf, where they eventually are joined by Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike). Long ago, Gary and Sam had a memorable knee-trembler in a bathroom stall, and Gary would love to relive that experience. Sam, who also has moved on in her life, is repulsed — which is good news for Steven, who still has a crush on her.
The movie also takes note of a persistent issue in the U.K. — the slow death of the traditional British pub, which is being degraded by high taxes, smoking bans and creeping gentrification. So as Gary and his co-crawlers make their way through the various taprooms, they’re shocked to see that some of them have morphed into snooty gastro-pubs and others into raving discos. Along with this cultural zombification, there’s been a mysterious change in the clientele. Everyone is strangely subdued — there’s no more of the uproarious bonhomie the men remember from the old days — and even the sods and bullies who once tormented Gary are now placidly solicitous. What’s going on?
Gary finds out when he ducks into the loo in one pub and has a spectacularly violent encounter with … well, I won’t go into that. I will say that Pegg and company can now take their place in the pantheon of great British character actors, joining such past comic masters as Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Alastair Sim (and that Pegg apparently did all of his own bone-crunching stunts, as well). And Wright’s editing, here enabled by Chris Dickens, is once again a marvel to behold; he pulls in and out of shots with a crisp dispatch that whips things along without ever leaving us behind.
It’s frustrating to be so sketchy about this movie. But its many delights — not least the usual machine-gun barrage of semi-obscure pop culture references — should be discovered firsthand. That’s a mission, unlike Gary’s, that really deserves to be undertaken.