Director Edgar Wright keeps the laughs coming while paying tribute to action movies with the rollicking heist film Baby Driver.
Since his 2004 zomb-rom-com Shaun of the Dead gave audiences a new take on a trio of stale genres, director Edgar Wright is oft-considered one of the best genre directors. His fifth feature film, and his first actually set in America, Baby Driver is a high-octane film that plays with both the action and, surprisingly, musical genre. Wright’s ensemble cast has great comedic timing that, coupled with the percussive score and smooth action setpieces, will you ready to peel out of the local theater.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a wheelman coming up on his “one last job.” When the final heist includes a gang of thieves from past jobs it creates a powder keg that threatens to explode, and leave Baby in the crosshairs.
Like all of Wright’s past works, Baby Driver doesn’t boil down to one set genre but is influenced by multiple films and genres. Can you think of any other director who could insert Raising Arizona’s humor into a car movie with shades of Drive and The Driver in it? With shades of La La Land to boot? The basic tenets of the heist film act as a foundation: Baby owes a debt to the shadowy Doc (Kevin Spacey). Just when Baby thinks he’s out, he’s pulled back in, putting himself and his newfound love – a plucky diner waitress played by Lily James – in danger. The various baddies are all takes on typical heist villains comprised of loose cannons and jerky deplorables.
With so many villains it makes sense that the film’s hero would be safe. As an actor, Ansel Elgort is an acquired taste, but he actually connects as Baby; he certainly looks the part. Reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character in Drive, Baby is a man of few words, the source of humor at the expense of the criminals around him who find him “slow.” Like any good hero Baby has a dark past of death, destruction and mommy issues. When he isn’t driving he spends his time at the local diner with James’ Debora or helping his deaf foster father Joe (wonderfully played by CJ Jones). Dancing around or lip-syncing to his music, Elgort possesses all the character’s fun and whimsy that’s buried under personal tragedy. When he puts on his shades to drive, it’s all business and Elgort succeeds equally, in that regard. If you’ve found the actor’s face as punchable as I have, Baby Driver does a lot to change the actor’s narrative.
The rest of the cast is equally fun and well-utilized. Kevin Spacey’s Doc is situated as the villain hanging a debt over Baby’s head, but Spacey’s deadpan delivery undermines all that. Spacey demonstrates something passing for affection for Baby, even if that still requires the young man to take in Doc’s nephew to scope out the best way to rob a post office. Jaime Foxx as Bats is crazy fun, a loose cannon who needs the slightest motive to outright shoot someone. He’s terrifying in impatience. Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez are the film’s Mickey and Mallory as Buddy and Darling. With their matching “his” and “hers” tattoos, there’s something romantic and sexy about the characters that’s negated by how crazy they are. (If you can’t tell, poor Baby is the lone innocent surrounded by a sea of insanity.) Lily James is probably the weakest link as the sweet Debora. She’s Baby’s reason to live; the sweet 1950s embodiment of Americana, as evidenced by a Pleasantville-esque fantasy Baby has. It’s not that James gives a bad performance; it’s that the character is just so blah in comparison to the other showier actors.
It’s hard to properly contextualize the elements of Baby Driver that work because so much is reliant on the interplay of images with audio. The film’s opening scene, a smoothly choreographed heist, is conducted like a symphony. The characters get out of the car, glide to the trunk and extract their weapons with more flair than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. At various points throughout, the sound of gunfire is syncopated with the non-diegetic music. Baby’s poignant relationship with Joe is wrapped up within the lack of hearing, and how dialogue becomes paramount while ironically being presented via sign language and subtitles. Wright plays with how movies utilize audio and how audiences play with sound. As Baby dances through the streets of Atlanta, the lyrics of the song are slyly inserted into the frame for a Where’s Waldo sing-along.
With a multitude of film inspirations it’s remarkable that Baby Driver is as smooth as the car scenes. The action and comedy are balletic in their unity, with laughs coming as quickly as Baby’s turns around a street corner. The action is tight and suspenseful, yet Wright injects his patented brand of humor that usually manifests in stressful situations. As a director Wright has matured immensely and Baby Driver is easily his most accomplished film.
Baby Driver is the must-see summer film in a world gone to tired franchises. Action-packed, hysterical, expertly composed and downright cool, this is a movie that leaves you smiling and singing.