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Has it really been nine years since "Shaun Of The Dead"?
In some ways, it feels like that just happened, but when I consider how much ground Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have covered in those nine years, it's sort of amazing. After all, when "Shaun" went into production, they were best known for a small cult English television show, and they were working completely independently, off the radar. That film's release was a gamble for Focus/Rogue, at least in part because of just how very English the humor is, and it paid off for them. "Hot Fuzz" in 2007 was equally local in its sensibility, and it also showed that Pegg and Frost weren't interested in just playing the same characters in different situations.
One of the hardest things about the position that Wright finds himself in now is the simple difference between surprising people with a small movie and then delivering on a decade's worth of expectations, and I suspect that no matter what, "The World's End" will frustrate some viewers. It's not a movie designed to simply punch the pleasure button and comfort fans by repeating what they've done before. In fact, it may be a direct refutation of that idea, by design, and in some ways, it feels like it's going to be a bitter pill for some people to swallow.
Both Shaun and Nick Angel, the characters that Pegg played in "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," were presented in fairly sympathetic terms. Shaun's a bit of a slacker, stuck in a low gear to the frustration of the people around him, but he's a generally good guy, and when things go south, he rises to the occasion. Nick is more of a hard-ass on the outside, but there is a loneliness to him that finds some salve in the way Danny Butterman (Frost) takes to him, making him part of his town. In "The World's End," Pegg tests the limits of audience sympathies for the first time, playing Gary King, who may just be the world's biggest tit.
In the film's opening, we hear Gary recount the story of the greatest night of his life, which took place on the last day of high school when he set out with his friends to accomplish The Golden Mile, a 12-stop pub crawl through their local town, Newton Haven. They didn't accomplish it back in 1990, and it's gnawed at Gary ever since. That's your first clue as to what this film's really about. For most people, a night of drinking that took place 23 years ago would not be the metric by which the entire rest of their life was measured, but for Gary, that's as good as it ever got.
Gary decides to try the Golden Mile again, but he can't do it alone. He needs the original crew, and as he goes to try to get each of them aboard the plan, we quickly see how hesitant they are to have anything to do with him. Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Steven (Paddy Considine) are at least willing to talk to Gary, but all three of them seem amazed that Gary would have the nerve to go see Andrew (Nick Frost) face to face again. Andrew was always Gary's right hand man, his best friend, but whatever happened between them two decades ago ended that completely, and Andrew wants nothing more to do with his former friend.
Andrew's a teetotaler, for one thing, and we can deduce that his reasons have something to do with whatever happened with Gary King. There was also some money involved. When they do finally meet, Gary manipulates Andrew shamelessly, and by the time he's done, Andrew wants to believe that time has made a better person of Gary King.
Sadly, that is not the case.
By the time the five men assemble in Newton Haven, one would assume we're in for a film about the way old dynamics reassert themselves, a movie about how hard it is to go home, and there is some of that in the film. There's a rhythm that the guys drop into almost immediately, and Gary is positively giddy to have everyone there. He is convinced that this night, completing this task, is some vital part of his own personal journey, and he attacks the evening, determined. Right away, though, the film starts to poke holes in the very idea of nostalgia. No one seems to remember Gary and his friends at all. The pubs they go into have all been homogenized to a disturbing degree so that it's like twelve copies of the same building instead of these small personal expressions of someone's identity. And worst of all, with Andrew not drinking, Gary feels like he's got to pick up the slack, and he starts getting sloppy almost immediately.