Edgar Wright takes an eclectic cast on a high-speed joyride with the stereo cranked to 11
Baby Driver (2017)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx
With his goofy-smart cult films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Word’s End, British writer-director Edgar Wright has proved himself an able genre dabbler. Whereas the previous outings were clever, winking parodies of zombie movies, buddy cop flicks, sci-fi disaster films, etc., Wright’s newest—the adept, ADD-generation crime flick Baby Driver—is his first, full-fledged deep-dive into respectful, (semi-)serious genre filmmaking.
Baby Driver is a pitch-perfect flashback to lovers-on-the-run car chase sagas of the ’70s: 1972’s The Getaway, 1974’s original Gone in 60 Seconds, 1974’s Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, 1974’s The Sugarland Express, 1978’s The Driver to name a few. Unlike today’s foremost car-centric franchise, the cartoonish Fast and the Furious sequels, Baby Driver isn’t all testosterone-fueled explosions and physics-defying stunts. It’s a gritty, guns-and-bullets character study done with panache, skill and a slice of humor.
It starts and ends with our main character, Baby (Ansel Elgort from the Divergent series, plus the teen weeper The Fault in Our Stars). Baby is a tightlipped, baby-faced twentysomething working as a getaway driver and general “good luck charm” for Atlanta-based criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey, in a quietly menacing performance). Seems that Baby’s parents were killed in a car crash when he was just a kid, and he spent years bouncing around foster care. Misguided but deeply moral, good guy Baby is stuck working for bad guy Doc because he owes the man a large sum of money. Whenever Doc calls, Baby shows up in a stolen vehicle and spirits an ever-changing gang of bank robbers away from some chaotic crime scene with his preternatural driving skills.
Among Baby’s many problems is the suggestion that the car crash that killed his parents left him with lingering tinnitus—a hearing condition he can only drown out by constantly listening to music. Herein lies Baby Driver’s biggest innovation: The entire thing is musically driven. Thanks to some triphammer editing and some innovative camera movement, Baby’s every high-speed getaway is set precisely to a tune from his own personal soundtrack (covering everything from classic ’70s soul to punk to rap to a little Lionel Richie). If anything goes out of whack, he’s got to rewind the song and get his rhythm back. Even moments that aren’t behind the wheel of a car are choreographed to the beat. Here, Wright indulges in a few flights of fancy: staging an entire gunfight to the staccato beat of “Tequila” or having various posters and signs along the street mirror lyrics to the song Baby listens to as he goes for coffee. It’s not as fantastical as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, of course, but it’s a sign that the cheeky Edgar Wright we know and love is still in there.
As expected for this kind of film, poor lonely Baby soon bumps into a music-loving waitress (Lily James from “Downton Abbey,” looking cute and sounding American) and falls in love. Naturally, he plans to do “one last job” for his boss and then split with his new ladylove. Of course, Doc doesn’t much like this plan and more or less tells Baby he’s a getaway driver for life. Finally—and just as predictably—the film’s climactic heist goes spectacularly awry. While cop cars swarm, bullets fly and the inevitable backstabbing begins, Baby’s mind races trying to figure out an escape route that will free him from the bad guys, save his girl and (maybe) allow them to get away with the money.
The script travels a well-mapped route, and Wright’s dialogue is pulpy even at the best of times. But for such a self-aware genre film, it’s perfectly fitting. Wright is doing more or less what David Lynch did in 1990’s Wild at Heart and Quentin Tarantino did in 1993’s True Romance. Wright doesn’t quite have the film geek instincts of Lynch or Tarantino—then again, he also lacks their pretension. Baby Driver is an unabashed fun ride for all—no obscure in-jokes or exclusionary film school references necessary.
Of course, it’s not the script, but the propulsive action and stylish direction that makes Baby Driver such a solid gold treat. The car chases are exhilarating, inventive and well within the realms of belief. Though the script doesn’t give us particularly deep characters, the actors involved are topnotch. At this stage of his career, Elgort is still an odd duck. It’s hard to tell how good an actor he really is based on the blank-faced, button-lipped Baby—but he’s perfectly believable as the boderline on-the-spectrum obsessive character. Spacey has fun as Baby’s well-dressed boss and nasty mentor. Jamie Foxx is uncharacteristically dark as the unpredictable triggerman Bats. And Jon Hamm chews the scenery like filet mignon as a romantic junkie with anger management issues.
Throw all these elements in the high-speed blender that is Edgar Wright’s camera, and Baby Driver emerges as a colorful, confident, occasionally comedic, refreshingly original take on the romantic heist drama. Get in, belt up and prepare to hum along.