Even though action, comedy, and the infectious cool only paralleled by B-movies from the 1970s are Baby Driver’s (2017) forte, the movie is also a quasi-musical.
But it’s a musical you’ve never seen before. Rather than garner excitement from witnessing beautiful people break out into beautiful song, it instead is musical in and of itself.
The soundtrack is killer, rivaling Tarantino’s untouchable Pulp Fiction (1994) collection, but it takes aural innovation to new heights. The film has its own sort of rhythm, with blazing guns, tire screeches, and car door slams becoming cymbal hits and tom tom thuds in its own cinematic drum line. With Baby Driver, writer/director Edgar Wright becomes a conductor as well as a filmmaker, every shot as carefully constructed and attached as the toupee sewn to supporting player Kevin Spacey’s scalp.
It marks another reinvention for the director, who, while maintaining the same frenetic sense of humor in his 20 years of working, has never honed a specific, definable aesthetic. His most acclaimed films, Hot Fuzz (2007) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), respectively harken back to over-the-top action vehicles of Schwarzenegger and pay tribute to the candy-colored energy of an Atari game.
Baby Driver finds the middle ground between sheer pulp and gritty, kinetic action. It’s as tuneful and funny as it is slick and high-octane. In many ways it is the blockbuster dreams are made of, thrilling and sprightly without losing itself in a big budget or an eager-to-please giddiness that plagues so many entires into the genre.
It take cues from Walter Hill’s The Driver, the 1978 B-movie that watched with utter enthrallment as the too-cool Ryan O’Neal played a getaway driver so skilled at his job he made skirting death seem fashionable. (The déjà vu is no mistake — on a recent episode of The Canon, the Amy Nicholson-hosted podcast that finds the latter and a special guest discuss whether a certain movie should be considered one of the greatest films ever made, Wright discussed how much The Driver made an impression on him.)
In common is an obsession with its own style, a loner protagonist we’re desperate to see break out of his shell, ethereal photography, a hypnotizing balance between brutal violence and in-the-know crime fantasy. But Baby Driver is injected with an exponentially higher amount of wit and color — in many respects is it superior to the movie that inspired Wright so immensely.
Such begins with how much more we come to care about the leading hero. Unlike the tough, aloof O’Neal, we have ours in amiable The Fault in Our Stars (2014) lead Ansel Elgort. In Baby Driver, he plays Baby, a barely legal lower-middle-class orphan living in a meager apartment with his mute godfather (CJ Jones). Because money is tight, he’s taken up a job as a getaway driver for crime kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), who orders various crews to rob banks around the city in which the film is set, Atlanta, Georgia.
Baby considers the job to be temporary, and is especially ready to walk away from a life of crime when he meets and takes a liking to Debora (Lily James), a waitress who wants just as badly to overcome her modest origins. But when one works with such ruthless people, an easy way out is next to an impossibility — and as the film progresses is it apparent that the only way Baby’ll step away scot-free is by weaseling his way out.
And Wright could not have found a better leading man to do the weaseling: Elgort’s got the baby face and flexible, wiry body to make him fit for as much physical comedy as the general fish-out-of-water vibe all-important to the movie. Here, Elgort is playing a loner obsessed with music (partially because he suffers from tinnitus), and he’s convincing in disparate scenes where he’s playing Man with No Name lite, where he’s alone with his godfather and can look and act like Gene Kelly, and where he’s doing his best to play love interest to James and seem mysterious in all the right ways. This is a role we might have seen Steve McQueen playing back in the 1960s, if McQueen found his career peak in his mid 20s, that is.
But Baby Driver is so rollicking, and so energetically made, its various, subtle homages don’t feel so evident until post-viewing, when Wright’s dialogue and his soundtrack can marinate. It’s such a fast-paced, spirited adventure you’ll be hazy as to when the last time you had such a wonderful time at the movies was. Wright knows how to please the crowd, but enlivening is the way his films can be accessible all the while original.
His ensemble matches him in their charms, even the villains winning us over with their love for themselves. Elgort, of course, is stellar, portraying a talented, if damaged, young man with plenty of scrap to get him far. James is disarming as the love interest; Jones’ performance is quietly affable. But best yet are the foes blocking the path to Elgort’s road to freedom, particularly Spacey as the venomous, smooth-talking head honcho of the band of criminals, and Jamie Foxx (in a juicy part) as a vicious co-worker obsessed with trying to undermine our hero. All are cast perfectly, Wright’s knack for bringing together electric ensembles evident.
And ultimately Baby Driver is electric, too. It’s effective in embodying every genre it draws influence from, and comes together to make a cohesive caper. Its adoration for music only adds to its charisma, and the cast’s appeal doesn’t hurt, either. Wright has outdone himself — how wonderful it is to have a filmmaker who can make popcorn fare this intelligent and this distinctive.