Think back to the best night you ever had. Maybe that’s the night you broke the casino and made out like a bandit. Maybe it’s the night you met the love of your life. Maybe it’s the night when every one of your friends was last together or the night your favorite team finally won the big game. However, you want to define it, it’s the night you never, ever forget; the one you take with you until you’re old and gray. More often than not, however, such moments are depicted as having a positive effect on people’s lives – consider movies like Sixteen Candles, The Hangover, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle or Can’t Hardly Wait. As the sun rises, lessons are learned, bonds are formed and the world is made for the better.
For Gary King, that night was supposed to be the last night of high school. He was young, energetic, good-looking and he was free from school. To celebrate, he and his group of friends – Pete, Oliver “O-Man”, Steven and Andy – were going to try and conquer The Golden Mile of their home town of Newton Haven. It would be the pub crawl to end all pub crawls: twelve pubs, twelve pints and a night they’d never forget. Though the friends didn’t finish it, the night was all Gary hoped it would be. He partied. He had sex with O-Man’s sister, Sam, in the handicapped restroom of a pub. He raised hell and managed to live through the night to see the rising of the new sun dawning on what he was sure was a great life ahead.
But life doesn’t get better for Gary (Simon Pegg), whom we meet twenty years later at some sort of group therapy session. His hard-partying ways have turned him into a 40-year-old adolescent with drug and alcohol issues. His friends have left him all behind and built lives of their own while he is still stick in the early 1990s. In a last desperate gamble to turn back the hands of times, Gary seeks out his old friends to bring them back to Newton Haven for another attempt at The Golden Mile. Pete (Eddie Marsan) works for the family’s Audi dealership and is a milquetoast family man. Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a smooth-talking real estate agent. Steven (Paddy Considine) is an architect who dates a 26-year old fitness instructor. And Andy (Nick Frost) is a wound-up, serious lawyer with a family who has sworn off drinking and partying after an unmentioned event with Gary severed their friendship.
By hook and by crook, Gary convinces each one of his estranged friends to return to their old home town and dare to try the pub crawl again. But as they begin to work their way from pub to pub, they begin to notice strange things going on. And while some of them can be dismissed as time moving on in this small town – like a grown-up bully not noticing Peter or barmen unaware of Gary – when Gary gets into a tough fight with a young man in the bathroom that results in the youth’s head coming off, it becomes clear that Newton Haven harbors a secret far more dangerous than the five friends could imagine. Unsure of what else to do and afraid of what may happen if they confront the threat, they opt to continue on their pub crawl, bringing Sam (Rosamund Pike) along for the ride.
All of the projects that director Edgar Wright and partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have created together (TV’s Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) as well as a lot of what they’ve created separately (Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Paul, Run Fatboy Run) deals with the idea of repressed adulthood. Shaun is a man-child who cannot commit to Liz because he still wants to hang out and have fun with Ed. Sergeant Nicholas Angel is a man committed to his work as a police officer in an attempt to recapture that sense of righteousness he lost as a child when he found his uncle was a criminal. It’s a topic that a lot of modern writers and directors focus given the way that nostalgia is now packaged and sold to us. But none of them have gone as far as Gary “The King” King.
In Gary King, Wright and Pegg have made a character who is stuck at the height of his life – twenty years in the past – and is unable, unwilling or incapable of moving forward through the next signposts of life. He keeps chasing his next high and does so to the detriment of his life. Watching him, all I could think of was a line from Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law”: “So much for that golden future I can’t even start.” Lacking the ability to move forward, he focuses like a laser in on that pub crawl night and tries to relive over and over again. Gary is the ex-jock still wearing his high school letter jacket. He’s the prom queen, still acting like the prom queen twenty years later at her minimum-wage job. He’s the lowly geek, drowning himself in conventions and cosplay, to avoid looking at who he really is.
Surrounding Pegg are many of the usual faces that have worked with Wright in the “Cornetto Trilogy” and each one of them is as held up by the past as Gary, even while they’ve tried to move forward with their lives. Nick Frost (Attack the Block, Snow White and the Huntsman) gets the chance to be the serious half in this outing and he manages to portray the wound-up, resentful Andy in a way that makes you forget Ed or Danny Butterman. Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum) cuts a solid, but sad act as Steven. He’s never forgiven Gary for sleeping with Sam, for whom he still harbors a serious crush. Martin Freeman’s Oliver (The Hobbit, Sherlock) went so far as to have the facial birthmark that his friends made fun of removed off his face – his need for perfection mandatory. He demands and protests whenever Gary calls him “O-Man.”
The minor revelation in the movie is Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, V for Vendetta) as Pete. He’s the prototypical bully victim. His family runs roughshod of him. His father still bosses him at work. And he gets many of the best lines and moments in the movie. Rosamund Pike (Doom, Die Another Day) gets to play the confused, but earnest Sam and is, in a sense, the adult of the group. There’s also David Bradley (Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series) as Basil, the old kook who believes in UFOs and even a cameo by Pierce Brosnan – continuing the Bonds doing cameos with Wright and his boys.
Behind the scenes, Wright managers to bring the same talented group that’s been with him for so many of his outings. Bill Pope (The Matrix Trilogy, Team America) brings his eye for cinematography and makes this movie crisp and pretty. Each of the pubs feels warm and inviting or cold and foreboding. Steven Price (the upcoming Gravity) delivers a solid score. Nick Gottschalk (Sherlock Holmes, Atonement) and Peter Dorme (The Dark Knight, Casino Royale) provide some pretty art direction that gives Newton Haven a modern English look – as if London has been copied and transposed into this small village. And with Brad Allen (Kick-Ass, Rush Hour) as stunt coordinator, they manage to create some pretty exciting fight sequences for each of the lads to engage in.
We live in an age where nostalgia is treasured. We seek to constantly remake the past – our movies are sequels or reboots, our music is samples of older music to the point modern artists sue the estates of the deceased preemptively. We have modern apps that are designed to make our modern photos look old and distressed. Everywhere we look, we are steeped in nostalgia (defined as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time”).
Wright and Pegg are known to tap into that sense of nostalgia while adding a touch of their own sensibilities. They turned the Romero zombie movie into a buddy-comedy about growing up. They made an 80s action movie and flipped it into a movie about a man coming to terms with what he was missing out. But The World’s End goes further than either of those movies has ever gone. In Gary King, they’ve made flesh the worst aspects of this nostalgia idea. He drives the same old car he did at age 18. He listens to the same music. He dresses in the same dark clothing. All of which isn’t enough to damn him. His actions do.
Because Gary King is unable to move past that gilded age of 18 that he turns desperate to continue living it for the rest of his life. He seeks that high of invincibility he felt that night until it’s cost him his friends, his family and his future. While the rest bear the scars of youth, it’s the scars they got at the hands of Gary King that still sting them – Steven with his unrequited love for Sam, Andy with how Gary’s drug use and antics left him broken. The pub crawl is supposed to act as a cathartic process for them all: to come to terms with Gary and with one another. And it ends up being a fight for humanity.
Because, naturally, the movie doesn’t quite stop there. Had it just been an examination on nostalgia, you could say it’s half done. But then there’s the whole sci-fi, end of the world element in here. What I like is that it ties rather well into the journey the lads are having. Just as they’re trying to move from the past, there’s an element offering the chance to live eternally young with just the good memories if that’s what you want. Can they stand such temptation?
It’s understandable why so many of Wright/Penn/Frost fans are having an issue with this movie. It’s not as cute as Shaun of the Dead nor as straightforward as Hot Fuzz. In a sense, it’s turning the mirror back towards many of their fans and saying “Is this who you are?” No one likes to look back at all the damage one has done in one’s life to those who are nearest and dearest. In a sense, what The World’s End is all about is finding your place in the world. Not just looking back to recreate the best night of your life, but rather looking at how that night can be the springboard for new and better nights and days.