Edgar Wright makes movies for movie fans, first and foremost. Is there a wide audience for a zombie comedy that upends the genre while also delivering one of the most affecting horror tales of the 21st century? Maybe not at first, but Shaun of the Dead exists and it is spectacular. It took too many people too long to fall in love with a stylized rom-com martial arts adventure that appropriates video game language to provide commentary on how relationships evolve, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has rightfully become recognized as a one-of-a-kind pop masterpiece.
And speaking of pop masterpieces, Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver held its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival over the weekend and it’s remarkable for two reasons. First, Wright’s unique voice remains intact, even as he plunges into a genre that is new to him and a story that takes away some of his more familiar crutches. Second, he’s made a movie that feels like it has the capacity to win over the average moviegoer as quickly as it wins the hearts of his fellow cinephiles.
The quick elevator pitch for Baby Driver might as well be “Heat, the jukebox musical.” Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a young getaway driver working to pay off a debt to Doc, an unnervingly calm crime boss (played with paternal warmth and sinister menace by the great Kevin Spacey). The key to Baby’s success behind his wheel is, in comic book fashion, also his weakness: a childhood injury has left a continuous ringing in his ears, so he curates a personal soundtrack of music to choreograph his every moment. His life force is the earbuds that dangle around his neck at all times – Baby only takes them out, and the movie only pauses the soundtrack, when things get really dire.
And this is a movie about desperate criminals and “one last job,” so of course they get dire. And of course there’s a girl and dreams of escape and car stunts and shootouts and a fellow criminal whose wild card personality endangers the rest of the team. However, Wright, a canny engine of cinema who recycles the old and tired into the shiny and new, is well aware of the genre he’s playing in and remains one step ahead of anyone hoping to sniff out a cliche.
Baby Driver would be a fine action/heist movie if it was just that, but Baby’s music-driven existence gives the film an immediate and clever hook. With virtually every scene set to our hero’s eclectic soundtrack of oldies, indies, and everything in-between, the film becomes a musical. No one breaks into song, but they might as well. The rhythm of machine gun fire aligns with the beat of the soundtrack. Cups of coffee placed on a table act as a percussion back-up to the song blasting through the speakers. A walk through the city streets becomes a full-blown musical number that only we can notice, as the mundane choreography of day-to-day living syncs up with the music playing in Baby’s ears.
At one point, Baby rewinds a song on his iPod so the car chase he’s about to get in and his song of choice can line up just right. It’s a pitch-perfect Edgar Wright moment: hilarious and keenly aware of cinematic language and how music functions in an action scene.
This musical world is anchored by Elgort, whose Baby stands in stark contrast to the violent world around him. Soft-spoken, sweet, and powered by low-key southern charm, he’s the kind of crook you can root for, the guy who uses his ill-gotten money to care for an ailing foster father and whose stoic rejection of macho behavior feels refreshing. Baby is a non-toxic kid surviving in a toxic world and Elgort somehow makes his relative innocence feel admirable and tough. He’s laconic but gentle, Clint Eastwood as a baby-faced sweetheart who apologizes for stealing cars and is unafraid to reveal a softer side.
While Elgort is the innocent without much to say, the film’s supporting cast leave teethmarks on the scenery. Spacey is hilarious as Doc, the crime boss who throws out threats as if he’s usually ordering lunch. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, playing two of Baby’s fellow crooks, are clearly having a great time: they’re frightening enough to have walked out of a Michael Mann thriller, but funny enough to turn the alpha male bank robber cliche on its head. These men are aware that they’re playing a role, “acting” for the rest of the crew, and the characters they have chosen to play gradually slip as things grow more desperate.
Things do grow increasingly desperate and Baby Driver gradually increases its stakes and pushes its humor into the background for the homestretch. It’s a tricky tonal high wire act we’ve seen from Wright before – a ludicrous premise eventually invites real stakes and real emotions, transforming the inherently absurd into something we must care about. Even in its darkest and most dire moments (and this is a film that really puts its characters through the wringer), Baby Driver remains true to its borderline impossible tone. Intense foot chases and shoot-outs and one-on-one brawls to the death remain musical numbers, even when the joy of a typical musical interlude transforms into fear and anxiety.
Through it all, Wright, cinematographer Bill Pope, and their team of second unit and stunt performers reveal a clear and clever eye for action. There is no obvious car chase CGI to be found here and no stunts that break the laws of physics. There will always be a place for absurd, Fast and Furious-style action, but Baby Driver is reminder that nothing beats watching stunts that are happening in-camera without digital assistance. To provide thrills within the laws of the natural world is something special, especially when the shots are long enough to let us treasure the action onscreen.
Baby Driver is a different beast than Wright’s previous movies, not quite the cultural fantasia of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and not quite the kinetic comedy of his “Cornetto trilogy.” Although infused with his familiar energy, it’s in love with films like Sharky’s Machine, Bullit, Heat, and Point Break and perfectly happy to be a member of that club rather than a parody or a deconstruction. The cinematic grammar on display is knowing, aware of the genre, but the story and the characters feel as if they strolled straight out of an undiscovered Walter Hill classic. So much of Baby Driver is, by design, wholly familiar, a knowing pastiche of the classic car chase movie…albeit one given the pulse of a Busby Berkeley musical.
There has never been a movie that feels quite like Baby Driver: a violent action movie with the soul of a musical, a car chase extravaganza whose hero extols the virtues of being decent, and a loving homage to a genre that feels happy to coexist with its peers rather than mock them. This movie is a miracle. Hell, it’s an Edgar Wright movie.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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