'The World's End' (R)

As teenagers, five friends tried to do “The Golden Mile” crawl — drink a pint of beer at each of the 12 pubs in their small hometown — but couldn’t even get past the halfway mark. Twenty years later, the gang’s former leader Gary (Simon Pegg) has failed at life; he’s broke, single, in therapy and still driving the same car he drove in high school. He gets the idea to reunite the old gang and give the pub crawl another try. He wants to relive the glory days when he was popular and liked and his future still seemed bright. But all his friends now have successful careers, families and responsibilities. They grew up when Gary didn’t, and the thought of revisiting the past isn’t quite as appealing to them.

But Gary won’t take no for an answer. The first half-hour of The World’s End is dominated by Pegg as the fast-talking, hyper-active Gary, the sort of person who breaks down your defenses and forces you to say yes simply so he will shut up. Director Edgar Wright uses the same sort of smash-cut editing he employed in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as Gary drops in on his friends one by one: Andrew (Nick Frost), a lawyer who doesn’t even drink anymore; Oliver (Martin Freeman), a real estate agent; Steven (Paddy Considine), who works in construction; and Peter (Eddie Marsan), a car salesman.

The terrific ensemble is convincing at playing long-time pals who haven’t seen each other in ages but still harbor petty resentments and rivalries. Although they’re all initially reluctant, the men eventually give in to Gary’s oppressive enthusiasm, squeeze into his jalopy and head out to conquer the pub crawl. But the moment they set foot in the first pub, which has been gutted of all its old charm and remodeled to look like a chain restaurant, they realize you really can’t go home again.

Slowly, the gang starts to notice other odd things about their hometown that aren’t quite as easy to explain. The World’s End is the final installment in Wright’s unofficial Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), named after the ice cream cone that makes a cameo in each of the three films. Like the other two movies, which paid homage to a specific genre (zombie and Hollywood action movies), The World’s End is a lot more than a Brit take on The Big Chill, although to reveal the craziness that erupts halfway through the movie would spoil the fun. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the trailers, which ruin a lot of the surprises, steer clear and watch the film cold.

And see it you should. After a shaky start that borders on the annoying, The World’s End becomes a fabulous comedy about male arrested development in which the characters get continually drunker (and funnier) as the story progresses. The actors are clearly having a blast playing soused (Frost does a throwaway bit where he reaches for a doorknob but pushes his hand through a glass pane instead that kept me chuckling for 10 minutes), and they have fantastic comic timing while flinging barbs at each other. Even after the world around them starts to go mad, the guys push forward with the pub crawl, determined to finish it even if it kills them. It might.

Naturally, large consumption of alcohol leads to many, many fights (including a tremendous brawl inside a bathroom) and Wright shoots most of them in one long take, so you can see all the actors at once. The thrills are giddy and fresh – the antithesis of the rat-tat-tat editing of most contemporary action pictures. The last half-hour of The World’s End becomes a series of references to other movies, but unlike Shaun of the Dead, the in-jokes aren’t always well integrated into the story. Some of them just hang there, like signposts. But these characters gradually grow on you — even the annoying Gary becomes tolerable — and they carry you past the script’s rockier patches. The World’s End builds to an unexpectedly witty, funny climax that flies in the face of most films of its genre, and although its humor is not for all tastes, no one can say this crazy picture doesn’t have the guts to live up to its title.

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, David Bradley, Reece Shearsmith.

Director: Edgar Wright.

Screenwriters: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright.

Producers: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner.

A Focus Features release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, mayhem, adult themes. Opens Friday Aug. 23 at area theaters.