Baby Driver (2017) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Sky Ferreira
Small role: Flea, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Paul Williams
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Review published July 2, 2017
Set in Atlanta, Ansel Elgort (Allegiant, Insurgent) plays Baby, a baby-faced (naturally) but extremely talented driver who constantly plays music on several of his old iPods while he works in order to overcome his persistent tinnitus, the result of a childhood car accident that left him an orphan. Luckily for us, his taste in music is impeccable (Queen, T. Rex, The Commodores, Barry White, Simon & Garfunkel (whose "Baby Driver" provides the inspiration for the title), and even Young MC gets dusted off), so while he works as a wheelman in order to pay back a debt to a powerful crime boss named Doc (Spacey, Elvis & Nixon) that sends the taciturn lad out on a series of bank heists, we gets a great soundtrack to tap our feet to as we observe the slickly edited and beautifully choreographed car chases. The trouble is that Baby hates what he does and wants out as soon as his debt is paid off, which he does, only to find Doc knows he's the best driver in the business and won't let his golden goose go.
Baby Driver is Edgar Wright's (The World's End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) fifth film, and the combination of a great many of his most beloved facets he has honed as a filmmaker to date, distilling his penchant for loopy themes, cinema literacy, dedication to homage, and cliche subversion in order to make a new breed of comedic action movies. I would also argue that it's his best film as well, though many of his fans are likely already entrenched into championing one of his older efforts that have held up to repeat viewings over the years as something that's not so easily dethroned. In another way, it also fits right in with those older works; it explores similar themes, especially of a man who must confront a troubled past in order to mature beyond his current predicament and find success.
Perhaps it is mostly fueled by style much more so than substance, but, oh, what beautiful style Wright has brought to the big screen, with its stellar camerawork, its emphasis on thrilling stunts, and that aforementioned killer soundtrack to drum up that extra kick of adrenaline to make for some truly exciting moments. It's a cool film, through and through, and a breath of fresh air amid a slate of stale action films during the summer doldrums; it's certainly just not another robot-punching-robot snooze-fest. This one offers a sweet romance between Baby and a diner waitress named Debora (James, Price and Prejudice and Zombies) that generates palpable tension for the film as the proceedings get increasingly more dangerous and deadly. While it would seem implausible that the two would find deep emotions for one another such that they would make life plans together after just a couple of nice dates, within the course of the film itself, we do get a sense that they see something they have been looking for all along with each other, and are willing to take the chance to find love and happiness in each other's arms.
Solid performances also grace Baby Driver, including Ansel Elgort, who truly does exemplify the immature aspects befitting the name Baby,while also offering a less bad-ass action hero that's still worth rooting for. Kevin Spacey is also quite good as the shrewd crime lord who also sees something within Baby that makes him different than the other criminals in his employ, who seem to only be in it for less noble reasons, and whose bond need to be coerced out of them with threats and money. Rounding out the fine supporting performances are Jamie Foxx (Annie) as Bats, in full (yet still amusing) psychopathic menace, and Jon Hamm (Minions) as Buddy, who rides more on intimidation than charisma this time out to give his character a good screen presence. Lily James is appealing but not asked to give a great deal in terms of performance other than to be sweet and attractive, while Eiza Gonzalez (Jem and the Holograms), playing Buddy's partner in crime and in life, Darling, gets a bit lost amid the machismo as the fourth member of the group of bank robbers.
Wright comes full circle with Baby Driver from the notion presented in Hot Fuzz in delving head first into action tropes and stylistic flourishes first, leaving plausibility by the way side, but does it in a much smarter, more exhilarating fashion that makes this one of the best action-thrillers in recent years for those who like to feel a connection to the characters and enjoyment of the dialogue in between the cool set pieces and feats of derring-do. Its literacy in genre is superb, as with all Wright films, with such added homage to other bank robber films like Bonnie and Clyde (including the broken glasses).
Call it the more discerning filmgoer's preference to the Fast & Furious franchise, residing somewhere between those international box office blockbusters and art-house sensibilities like Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive. One could nitpick about it being a bit long in its run time for the kind of film it is, or in the shallow portrayal of female characters (something Wright has received his share of criticism for), but in the end, it's too wild and fun a ride to not want to hop in for a spin in this wacked-out and zany world with a complementary jukebox of amazing songs.
Like Baby does with his home-made mix-tapes where he takes recorded sounds and places them into a new and original kind of song, so too does Edgar Wright do with films. He's more interested in making new forms out of old standards, something that will no doubt draw out comparisons to others in this class like Tarantino. Use of camera, editing, and music are what separates film from other modes of storytelling, and something that Edgar Wright uses to full effect here; it's a pure form of cinema that further solidifies its author's place as one of the great talents among the current generation of filmmakers.
©2017 Vince Leo