Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Lily James
Director: Edgar Wright
Running Time: 113 mins
Synopsis: Baby (Elgort) is a supremely talented getaway driver, indebted to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) after a past indiscretion. Focused thanks to his constant need to have music on, he goes on one last job so his debt can be complete. Unfortunately Doc has other ideas, causing issues for Baby and his new love interest Deborah (James).
Edgar Wright has always known how symbiotic film and music needs to be. Get the right tune, the right beat and pair it with scenes rich with editing nous then you have something euphoric. Take the Queen moment in Shaun of the Dead featuring pool cues, violence and humour, or the Adam Ant blessed opening montage in Hot Fuzz. Not forgetting the cult success Scott Pilgrim, with its use of songs as plot momentum. Wright is also none too keen on being pigeonholed into one specific genre, who else out there could create the first Rom-Zom-Com, an apocalyptic pub crawl comedy and whatever the hell Scott Pilgrim is!!? Therefore it’s no surprise to see that his latest, and the first since the brief unfortunate sojourn with Marvel, is a rare beast indeed, an action musical. The fact it works so searingly well is also not much of a shock either!
Right from the off we are dropped into what is the start of a minutely planned bank heist, as getaway driver Baby sits in his souped up car awaiting the noise, bluster and madness to come once shit starts going down. Headphones in, he presses play and Bellbottoms’ Jon Spencer Blues Explosion bursts out from the speakers. Baby moves along with the music expertly and to the level that it is clear he has known this beat throughout his life. As the robbers escape and run towards him, the genius of what Wright is accomplishing here is soon apparent. The car spins, twists and flies around the highways of Atlanta (a location rarely seen on screen despite most of Marvel’s productions being based there) all beautifully timed to the beat of the song. It adds a palpable rhythm to what is already a finely choreographed sequence (all in camera I may add) although one insanely cool power slide is cut short but a strange edit to a shot of those in the car.
Now on describing this and outlining that we have an action musical at play here you’d think Wright had just left the songs to grace the copious action scenes. But that is far from his intention. The entire film finds its editing, acting and pace driven completely by music. We hear all this thanks to Baby’s incessant need to play music through his earphones at all times. You see Baby suffers from tinnitus, thanks to a childhood accident, and uses music because of this “hum in the drum” as one character so smartly puts it. Ansel Elgort (The Fault in our Stars) gives a star making turn as Baby. Quiet and brooding to begin but showing affectionate care to his deaf foster father, and diving into the physicality Wright requires with aplomb. Whether dancing like he’s auditioning for La La Land one minute, or leaping over cars the next, he gives Baby an inner joy that is delightful to watch. His obsession with music is so complete he even records dialogue from around him to utilise in unusual mixes he creates at home. This eclectic character trait is, in a genius move, used by Wright threefold, to showcase a painful childhood memory, to deliver a late film joke and as an actual plot device that sets up the terrific final act.
No more is Baby more lovable as a character than in his blossoming relationship with Lily James’s waitress Deborah. A meet-cute in his local diner is playful, flirty and simply wonderful to watch. Wright’s gift for whip smart character interactions present and correct. James makes for a wide-eyed deeply cute foil to Baby’s brooding charm, but she does lack a degree of inner life. The film only content to let us know she too lost her mother in a way to connect her to Baby, other than that she remains truly elusive as an actual individual. Lily James’s perky heartfelt performance outweighs those weaknesses but it is a shame to find such a setback in an otherwise accomplished script.
Their plans to run away and live that corny but optimistic life on the road relies on Baby completing his one last job (yep even Wright cannot outrun that cliche) for Kevin Spacey’s vicious crime boss Doc. Owing him from a past indiscretion Baby becomes the only regular in Doc’s ever changing bunch of thieves and killers. Spacey relishes the chance to play evil once more (usually saving that just for TV nowadays with House of Cards) and bites into the snappy dialogue with a giddy malevolence. Unfortunately this last job is not going to remain so, Doc convinced Baby is his lucky charm and using Deborah to drive (sorry) Baby back into service. To say anymore would spoil some of the nice surprises that await, especially come the dizzying final act which whizzes by in a series of chases (including a simply marvellous foot chase), bloody violence and more soundtrack changes than you can keep up with.
Ah the music. The ace in the hole. Awash with songs both familiar and rare, Wright knows exactly the right time and cue to lace his eclectic choices within the story. Even so far as scripting the film around the music. Unlike Guardians of the Galaxy (another action film that uses songs as plot momentum) the selections here are riskier, more unpredictable and manipulated to more accurately suit the action. Wright’s gift for casting continues here too, replacing his deft use of British character actors in his Cornetto trilogy for a misfit band of American outlaws. Jamie Foxx is a hyper verbal forceful presence as the psychotic Bats. Paranoid, volatile and violent he brings a layer of edgy tension to all his scenes whilst offering up some of the films funniest zingers. He is perhaps a little overused in a mid-section that sags in general but more so due to Bats incessant suspicion and close to annoying comebacks.
Surrounding these central figures we have Jon Hamm as Buddy, cutting loose in a role that starts off one note but reaches unexpected levels of heart, anger and sleaze. Starring as his sultry sexually hungry girlfriend is Eiza Gonzalez’s Darling. Akin to Deborah she gets rather thin material to work with, but at least cuts a formidable figure content to manipulate Buddy to do her bidding. Bit parts from the likes of Jon Bernthal and Flea (yes from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers) add colour to what is already a distinctly colourful film.
Out of all this Baby Driver is most certainly Edgar Wright’s show. His sly culture referencing, fast witty dialogue and clever escalation of set-pieces are carried over from his previous work. But there is an unbridled confidence here. The editing by Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss is simply astonishing, not just in the way it ebbs and flows with the music but the clarity of which the plentiful action is smoothed together. Visual detail is also at a premium here, one scene as Baby wanders to get coffee is dripping in rich background touches whilst also offering a subtle callback to the similar walk to the corner store in Shaun of the Dead. There is an art to making a film rife with joy, and Baby Driver is as high as art comes. The way characters interact, the way the film just keeps moving, the hefty amount of idiosyncratic gracenotes would be enough, but the fact Wright never forgets the heart, the humour and the soul through all the noise is a stroke of genius. Baby Driver is action as symphony.
Verdict: Baby Driver is a kaleidoscopic wonder. A couple of moments of drag cannot slow down a film absolutely high on the joy of sound, movement and life. Edgar Wright conjures up another new genre.