Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx
While the beloved ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End has cemented writer-director Edgar Wright’s reputation in the British film industry, his footing across the Atlantic has been slightly less solid. His first American film, Scott Pilgrim vs the World struggled to find its market despite being a lot of fun, and then there was the saga of Ant-Man which ultimately saw him walk away from the Marvel project. However Wright’s latest film, the genre bending action, heist, music video Baby Driver, could just be the film to establish him as a Hollywood director.
Nobody drives like Baby (Ansel Elgort). He’s fast. He’s creative. Baby drives to music. In fact, he lives his whole life to music. After an accident in his childhood left him with bad tinnitus, Baby always has his earbuds in to drown out the ringing in his ears. Unfortunately for Baby, he is in severe debt to the wrong people, so he has to put his skills to use as a getaway driver. The mastermind behind these heists is Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc always rotates his crews so that the same combination of people never works together twice. But he always uses Baby. Baby is the best. Baby is his good luck charm. After meeting waitress Debora (Lily James) in a diner, Baby decides it’s time to get out of the crime game, fuelled by romantic visions of “heading west on 20 in a car we can’t afford, with a plan we don’t have.” But as with all good heist movies he just needs to pull one last job. With a view to knocking over a post office, Doc assembles a new crew, bringing in love birds Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the unpredictable Bats (Jamie Foxx). It is a particularly volatile combination, and with Baby determined to get out and leave this world in his dust, the stakes are higher than ever.
While Edgar Wright has always been a filmmaker with a keen sense of style, Baby Driver takes that to the next level. More than just a heist movie with a killer soundtrack, in Baby Driver the music is a key structural element. Songs are allowed to play out in their entirety and the scenes have been designed around those songs. So the film is edited to its soundtrack. The action is choreographed to the soundtrack. While nobody breaks into song, in many ways the relationship between action and music is like that in a musical. It is stylistically ambitious but it pulls it off (the concept for Baby Driver first came to Wright 22 years ago, so he has had some time to think about it). From the opening scene, a robbery and car chase cut to the beat of ‘Bellbottoms’ by the John Spencer Blues Explosion, the film is meticulously executed, but not in such a way that it feels mechanical. It is like a dance. The synchronicity of sound and image gives Baby Driver a really cool sense of rhythm and unity.
However, while it is so clever, so well conceived and executed, Baby Driver can be somewhat lacking at a human level. The film is first and foremost about style and its devotion to that surface level is distancing. It keeps you at arms length. The constant encouragement to appreciate the style – which you have a great time doing – prevents you from looking through it and engaging on an emotional level with the characters. So while Baby Driver is very cool, at times it is also a little cold.
This detachment is not helped by the fact that a lot of the characters are somewhat two-dimensional. That doesn’t mean they can’t be engaging. Buddy, Darling, Bats and Doc are all fun characters, but they are also clearly cartoonish archetypes. Foxx is tremendous as the wildly unpredictable Bats, bringing a genuine sense of menace to the character, while Jon Hamm takes the opportunity to well and truly shake off Don Draper and show us another side of himself. The issue is that the characters we are supposed to be going on a journey with, Baby and Debora, aren’t nearly as engaging, with Debora in particular being thinly drawn. The result is that the love story which is supposed to be at the centre of the narrative feels rote.
Be that as it may, when you sit down to watch an Edgar Wright film you know you are going to be entertained, and in that regard Baby Driver delivers in spades. It isn’t as overtly comedic as his the Cornetto trilogy or Scott Pilgrim, with the humour here used more to leaven the action, but it is a lot of fun. Baby Driver defies generic expectations in so many ways, and the result is an exhilarating experience, particularly when Baby gets behind the wheel and turns up the iPod(though in a surprise twist, the best chase sequence of the film ends up being on foot).
Review by Duncan McLean
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