Somewhere within the loud, loopy chaos of "The World's End" is a tender, sensitive comedy trying to get out. It's the story of five middle-age British men re-creating an unfinished pub crawl from their youth. What they don't know is that their little hometown of Newton Haven has since been infiltrated by humanoid robots.
You might be willing to roll with that premise initially, if only for the top-notch cast. Simon Pegg plays ringleader Gary King, an aging Goth still wearing his 1990 Sisters of Mercy shirt; Nick Frost is Andy Knightley, once a heavyweight drinker but now a teetotaler. Completing the crew, and ranging from good to marvelous, are Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit") as sensible Oliver, Paddy Considine (Britain's "Red Riding" miniseries) as nice-guy Steven and Eddie Marsan ("War Horse") as worrywart Peter. A charming Rosamund Pike ("An Education") plays Sam, the girl who got away -- from more than one of them.
"The World's End," written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright (who with Frost gave us "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz"), sparkles whenever we're simply having pints with this likable group. Their camaraderie and shared memories -- wild times, unhealed wounds -- feel very real. Had "The World's End" stuck with this warm tone, it could have become something akin to "Diner" or perhaps "Withnail and I," a comedy with poignant underpinnings. The cast really is that good.
Instead, "The World's End" is a disparate genre mash-up, and one we've seen all too recently in frat action comedies like "The Watch," "This Is the End" and even 2011's "Paul," starring Pegg and Frost themselves. Wright knows how to keep the energy spinning, but he also doesn't know when to stop. The movie's silly robot scenes -- smashed heads, spurts of blue blood -- keep going long after they've lost their novelty.
"The World's End" cobbles together a theme, in which the robots represent an increasingly generic modern world, but it never quite jells. The wacky sci-fi angle seems intended as a fresh angle, but the old-fashioned story at the heart of this movie would have been enough.
PLOT Five middle-age friends attempt a youthful pub crawl but end up battling an army of space robots.
RATING (language, action-violence)
CAST Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike
BOTTOM LINE A British twist on the frat- comedy-action genre, but it's already been done by Rogen, McBride and the like. Too bad, because the cast is aces.