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 – sign-off.
I’m a little conflicted about how much to say about this movie. I managed to avoid learning anything about it before seeing it, and so the major narrative twist that occurs about a third of the way through the picture was a head-spinnning 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), and 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 shout-outs 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 night-long 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 re-stage 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 level-headed pals now live, intent on recruiting them for auld lang syne. His one-time 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’re eventually 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 has also 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 also 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 really be discovered first-hand. That’s a mission, unlike Gary’s, that really deserves to be undertaken.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
This determined franchise launch isn’t quite as teen-goopy as the Twilight films, or the dreadful books on which they were based. The lead character here is played by Lily Collins, a more appealing actor than the mopey Kristen Stewart, and her supernatural suitor has the great advantage of being portrayed by neither Robert Pattinson nor Taylor Lautner. The movie is a compression of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, the first of the five books (so far) in the author’s Mortal Instruments series, which have reportedly sold some 16-million copies worldwide, mainly to teenage girls. Sony is clearly hoping those readers will flock to this picture, and maybe they will. But will anybody else? At a guess, I’d say no way.
The movie is an exhaustingly jumbled mess. Author Clare started out writing Internet fan fiction, riffing on The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books, and her rise to print-world bestsellerdom has been trailed by allegations of, shall we say, shameless borrowing from other fantasy sources. Here, for example, the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl named Clary (Collins) who is unaware that she has supernatural powers. She encounters a group of wizardly youths – the evil-fighting Shadowhunters – who take her to meet their kindly leader at a sprawling headquarters called the Institute (hello Hogwarts – or is it the X-Men mansion?). In an especially brazen lift from Bill Willingham’s long-running Fables comic-book series, this grand edifice is located in New York City (or perhaps in leafier Toronto, where the movie was partly shot), and it’s protected by powerful spells to deflect the attention of clueless humans -- Mundanes, or “mundies,” as Willingham has always called them. For Star Wars fans, there’s also a long-lost father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has gone over to the dark side; and for Twilight adepts, there’s a PG-13 love triangle and a generous helping of vampires and werewolves (known as Downworlders). There are also a number of icky demons on hand who have a computer-generated familiarity of their own.
The story will likely be impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with Clare’s book. (It’s 500 pages long; I gave it a cursory look and decided life was too short.) Clary is haunted by visions of a mysterious rune. Her mother (Lena Headey) knows why. But after mom is kidnapped by a demon team, Clary is left to puzzle things out with a runically tattooed Shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), whom she encounters while he and two associates, Isabelle (Jemima West) and Alec (Kevin Zegers), are terminating another demon in an improbably wild teen nightclub. Back at the Institute, under the tutelage of headmaster Hodge (Jared Harris), Clary learns that she, too, is a Shadowhunter, and that it is now incumbent upon her to help locate the Mortal Cup, in which the blood of angels and the blood of humans were long ago mixed, brewing up the Shadowhunters’ origin story.
Why director Harald Zwart (who previously gave us the Karate Kid remake) didn’t instruct first-time screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette to concoct an introductory rundown of all this cumbersome mythology is a mystery – especially since there’s so much more going on. There’s a witchy tarot-card reader named Dorothea (CCH Pounder), and there’s the Warlock of Brooklyn (Godfrey Gao), a heavily-mascara’d individual who’s secretly hot for the secretly gay Alec. There’s a vampire hostelry (the Hotel Dumort), a spooky catacomb (the titular City of Bones), a tribe of ember demons (they look like they were scraped up from the bottom of a barbecue pit) and an otherworldly portal at the Institute that looks like a window into a giant aquarium. All of this and swordfights and knife battles beyond number, most of them staged for maximum monotony.
Lily Collins makes a good Clary – she’s just the kind of butt-kicking beauty any girl might want to be. But Bower’s Jace seems unworthy of her – with his bony countenance and stiffly styled hair, he suggests a male model on a meth binge. By the time Clary decides whether to stick with him (for the sequel, already in pre-production) or give a shot to her friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), who finally musters the gumption to tell her he loves her, we’re past caring. The movie’s deadening hash of genre clichés and oddly un-rousing action has defeated us. At one point, Clary actually says, “This is so confusing!” We hear you, honey.