Ah, that realm of ink-black secrets bubbling beneath the brittle crust of English normalcy and reserve. Writer/director Edgar Wright has taken us here before, first with the zomboid whimsy of Shaun of the Dead and then with the constabulary conspiracies of Hot Fuzz. The final installment of Wright's Cornetto trilogy--so named after flavors of the frozen dessert cone--The World's End brings us back to this world of absurdist mayhem, of encroaching tyrannies and nonconformist heroism and pubs. Especially pubs.
The title of the film is, along with its more literal meanings, the name of the 12th and final stop on the "Golden Mile," a legendary pub crawl undertaken by five teenage friends in June 1990. The boys did not complete their herculean venture--pub (and pint) No. 9 exhausted even the limits of adolescent endurance--and over the succeeding 20+ years they've moved on to marriage, divorce, kids, and careers as lawyers or car salesmen or real estate agents.
All save one. The self-styled leader of the juvenile pack, Gary King (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script), has remained stubbornly juvenile: same leather duster and boots and rocker rings and pendants; same car playing the same cassette in its tape deck; same substance-abuse problem. It is in the sullen grayness of a recovery program that he undergoes the twin epiphanies that a) the pub crawl was the premature zenith of his existence and b) he never finished it.
His stores of purpose refilled, Gary sets about embarking his old comrades--played by customary partner Nick Frost, as well as Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan--aboard his ferry to regression: They will return to Newton Haven, the sleepy hamlet of their youth, and attempt the Golden Mile again, this time refusing to give up "until the bitter--or lager--end." Along the way, the reunited brew-buddies will uncover resentments and rivalries (one involving a likable love interest played by Rosamund Pike), as well as past tragedies both real and falsified.
The journey itself is nothing short of epic, the pub names alone worthy of Homer or Virgil: The First Post, The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, The Cross Hands, The Good Companions, The Trusty Servant, The Two Headed Dog, The Mermaid, The Beehive, The King's Head, The Hole in the Wall, and finally, The World's End. I won't reveal the specific travails faced during this quest, except to note that inebriation is among the least of them, and we will encounter heady wafts of (among others) The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Stepford Wives, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In some sense, The World's End is not merely a thematic successor of the two earlier entrants in Wright's trilogy but their culmination, one that entwines the paranormal and paternalist strands of its forbears.
Few cinematic categories have proven more vexing in recent years than the action-comedy: as movies in the genre accelerate into their final acts, the former component consistently threatens to overwhelm the latter. But Wright proves once again that there is no director working today more adept at maintaining a proper balance between humor and commotion, even as the explosions and dismemberments multiply. His skill set is immaculately suited to the task, from the kinetic camera-work to the boozily humanist ethos to the witty soundtrack selections to the care with which the script is constructed. (Be prepared for an unlikely echo of the line "There's no arguing with you.") And there are, of course, gags aplenty, on topics ranging from The Three Musketeers to traffic circles, from King Arthur to Yogi Bear.
But the underlying theme in The World's End, as in its trilogy partners, is of breaking through the surface to find out what lies beneath the friendly smile or glassy stare, whether it be an undead epidemic or an outbreak of communitarian-totalitarianism. Regardless of the details, the easy solution presented is to accept the status quo, to go along with the program, however peculiar or hideous. Why rock the boat, after all, when it seems more seaworthy than the life-flotsam to which you've been clinging for so long? But that is not, needless to say, the approach chosen by Wright's (and Pegg's) heralds, who preach the related gospels of the human right to fuck up and the human right to get fucked up.
By edging into the darker subject of genuine addiction, The World's End tries a bit to have it both ways, to enjoy its bender and forswear it too. It's a conflict most evident in the movie's awkward and slightly unsatisfying coda, which attempts to shoehorn in at least one message--about temperance and tolerance and friendship and adventure--too many.
But up until its final minutes, The World's End is a genuine delight, the most satisfying apocalypse of a summer that has been brimming with them. Robert Frost famously mused Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice. I prefer Edgar Wright's vision: It will end in a pub.