To the people in charge: please, please, please let Edgar Wright direct the next installment of the Fast and Furious series. Let him write it, too. With Baby Driver, he’s proven he is up to the task. He might not have any interest, though. Wright thrives on challenging himself with a different genre for each new film he makes. He dismantles them, and rebuilds them in his own quirky, original image. He did it with horror in Shaun of the Dead, and the buddy-cop movie in Hot Fuzz. He did it with the romantic comedy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and science fiction in The World’s End. Now he’s done it with the heist/car chase genre in Baby Driver. It’s exhilarating, funny, and a damn good time at the movies.
In the very first sequence, Wright invites us into his playground with a car chase that’s worthy of 90 minutes of rising action. He eschews camera and computer trickery for good, old-fashioned stunt work. This breathless action scene is how we meet Baby, the getaway driver for a bank robbery operation masterminded by Doc, a powerful underworld figure. Due to a bad car crash when he was a small child, Baby suffers from constant tinnitus, a ringing in his ears. He drowns it out with an ever-present set of earbuds and a never-ending playlist of his favorite tunes.
Wright has cleverly used this plot device in order to play around with one of the bedrock conventions of this kind of movie: the pulse-pounding soundtrack that accompanies every chase scene. He has a lot of fun with it outside of the car, too. Fans of Wright’s work delight in pointing out the hidden references and clever visual jokes he puts in his movies. Hot Fuzz is filled with visual and aural in-jokes to other buddy-cop movies. Baby Driver is just as rewarding for those with an attentive eye and ear.
After the opening chase, we get a scene that doesn’t involve cars, but is just as visually dazzling. Besides being the man behind the wheel, Baby’s other duty is picking up the crew’s coffee for the meeting after the heist, to split up the profits. As he walks down the street to the local Starbucks, we hear what he’s listening to on his iPod. Baby’s soundtrack is our soundtrack. The camera tracks beside him in an astonishing long take as he bops along to the music in his ears.
It’s a meticulously choreographed sequence, and as things burst into my field of vision, I noticed something that put an immediate smile on my face. Every fifth or sixth word being sung on the soundtrack appeared on the screen, as graffiti on a wall, or in type on a poster. It’s a clever touch that could go by completely unnoticed, and it’s the kind of thing that Edgar Wright uses to put his distinctive stamp on every movie he makes. I have to imagine the director used computer generated help to make the complexity of the sequence a little easier on him and his creative crew. The words were likely added at just the right spot in post-production. This is a proper way to use CGI to enhance your movie. Between a subtle, clever use like this, and, say, 100-foot robot cars that feel as phony as they look, give me the former every time.
Much like his stylistic choices, Wright’s script is just as clever at deconstructing the heist movie. A throwaway moment made me laugh about as hard as anything else in the movie. The criminal kingpin, Doc, is drawing up plans for the next bank robbery on a white board so the crew can discuss the logistics of it. As he does so, he is arguing about Baby’s eccentricities with a member of the crew who doesn’t trust Baby. At the end of the conversation, Doc looks at the white board, and exclaims how perfectly he drew up the plans, even though he was talking about something else the whole time. It’s a beautifully crafted moment that has fun at the expense of one of the genre’s clichés, but in a loving way.
Baby Driver’s cast is integral in making Wright’s script shine. Ansel Elgort plays Baby, and he proves he is ready to stretch himself beyond the YA movies for which he is known, most notably The Fault in Our Stars and The Divergent Series. Elgort plays Baby with a cool-under-pressure demeanor, evoking a Steve McQueen attitude, and belying the turmoil just below the surface. As we find out during the movie, Baby is working for Doc against his will. That, and the circumstances surrounding the crash that lead to his tinnitus, make him a more complicated person than he lets on, and Elgort skillfully walks that line.
Kevin Spacey is sheer joy as Doc. The criminal genius looks out only for himself, and he isn’t afraid to threaten his closest associates to get what he wants. Doc could easily be the long-lost brother of another of Spacey’s best roles, President Frank Underwood from House of Cards. Wright is never lazy enough to make any of his characters one-dimensional, though, and Doc is no exception. He makes some surprising decisions late in the picture that add shades of gray to his villainous exterior.
Because Doc refuses to use the exact same crew twice, we get a mix of lowlifes. Jon Hamm is Buddy, the bank robber who led a very different life before turning to crime. Just like the rest of the movie, which delightfully keeps us guessing, we’re never sure just how much we – or Baby – can trust Buddy.
Bats, a psychopathic menace played by Jamie Foxx, is the one character we know not to trust. The way Bats psyches himself and the rest of the crew up before a robbery gives a hint to how crazed he is. Just before he starts a job, he creates a story about how everything in the building is theirs. It was all stolen from them, and now they’re going to take it back, no matter what.
The one weakness to Wright’s script is Baby’s love interest, Debora, played by Lily James. Baby Driver, like most of Wright’s other movies, is a boy’s club, and the female characters are mostly an afterthought. James does great work with what she’s given, and Debora isn’t one-dimensional, but she has almost zero agency, and only serves as a goal for Baby to get out of his forced life of crime. That’s not to say what happens to her, particularly when Bats finds out how much Baby cares for her, isn’t engrossing. The stakes are about as high as you could want them. It would just be nice if Wright would give as much care and attention to his female characters as he does his men.
It’s not a minor quibble (there is rightfully a huge amount of pressure being brought to bear on the entire entertainment industry about how women are portrayed), and Baby Driver does suffer because of it, but it’s hard to overlook how much of an achievement the movie is. Wright’s tense and masterful climax speaks to that. He intentionally subverts our expectations about how a car chase movie should end (in cars, and not on foot) but gives us a finale that’s every bit as exciting as we could hope for. It’s an expert deconstruction of a genre by a director that never repeats himself. I can’t wait to see what he takes on next.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- In a just world, Baby Driver would be THE summer blockbuster action movie for 2017. It's so much fun.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I mentioned the one long take towards the beginning of the movie, but Wright uses long takes and generally just does exciting things with the camera throughout Baby Driver. He's an incredibly interesting director, visually speaking, and this movie furthers that argument.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Next week, I'll be looking at South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's newest movie, Okja, which premiered exclusively on Netflix on June 28th. If you feel so inclined, you can watch it yourself before you read my reaction, so you can decide if I know what I'm talking about or not.