The latest by Edgar Wright is (no surprise) among the best of the year, a ludicrously entertaining action film driven like a rhythmic journey through music
As pop-culture consuming humans, we find something inherently satisfying about seeing our music and images sync up. Isn’t that the main appeal of those Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battles? It’s not just the recognition of hearing Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” that excites audiences, but the gyrating movements that the oafish Will Ferrell makes as he mimes to the beat of the sexual music. Tapping music to hit specific beats of visuals create this beautiful marriage of image and sound that pleases our senses and grabs our attention.
Baby Driver, the new action crime caper by director Edgar Wright, takes that mixture to its most ingenious, pulse-pounding extremes. The director of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) has made a rightfully beloved career out of kinetic camera movement, clever and hilarious writing, and an overall sense of fun and playfulness. All of those skills are on full display in Baby Driver, which feels like Wright’s immediately recognizable style graduating into a commercially satisfying and gloriously entertaining Hollywood action film. It’s the thrills and artistry of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive crossed with the jukebox musical sensibilities of Quentin Tarantino, with all of the positives that come with that unlikely marriage.
As much as it is a story about crime, Baby Driver is a story about love and music. Ansel Elgort is Baby, a getaway driver for criminals in Atlanta who underwent a traumatizing experience at a young age that left him with no parents and a bad case of ringing tendonitis in his ears. Living with his deaf and handicapped foster father (one of the many ways that the film uses music and visuals over dialogue to tell the story), Baby drives with the shades down on his glasses and his original generation Ipod blasting into his earphones. He moves to the beat of everything from Queen to Beck to even some Egyptian Reggae, deftly maneuvering past law enforcement and consistently making clean getaways.
Baby drives in the first place to pay off a debt he accrued long ago to the dangerous gangster Doc (the always brilliant Kevin Spacey). With the score almost settled, the kid starts to fall in love with waitress Debora (Cinderella’s Lily James) and looks to hit the open road with her and leave his life of crime behind. Doc doesn’t make walking away that simple for Baby, however, and if he wants to have a life with Debora, he’s not done until his boss says so.
Baby Driver is so much a part of the frenetic and glee-filled DNA of Wright’s filmmaking that it couldn’t possibly belong to anyone else. Without Wright, the film is no more than your typical getaway driver action flick, but his talent transforms this played-out premise into this extended, non-stop thrilling musical adventure. All of Wright’s films demand multiple rewatches in order to unpack the planted little details beneath the surface, because as much as you’re enjoying the well-written story, there’s always these hints of ingenious foreshadowing and meaningful filmmaking that strengthens your viewing experience. Without a doubt, Baby Driver will be no exception, but it may be his most accessible and broadly entertaining film for all audiences on first watch.
Wright’s direction is so calculated and razor sharp that it really feels like he’s planned each shot and each beat up to the millisecond. The whole film moves with a rhythm and a pace to it that few (if any) filmmakers could match, using its soundtrack, dialogue, score and even seemingly every single mundane sound effect to tell the story. In an Edgar Wright film, something as small as a siren or a horn becomes a character moment or a steadying beat. In particular, the music aids the practically driven action sequences, which differ enough from each other to never grow stale and features some truly stunning stunt work. Despite Wright’s frenetic editing style, things are never unclear during the fast-paced moments, as he uses his editing in service of his beautifully choreographed cinematography.
Baby Driver is more straightforward that Wright’s other films, lacking the satire of the Cornetto Trilogy or the video-game homages of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That’s certainly not meant to be a knock, as Baby Driver is more interested in being an action movie with comedy in it as opposed to a mixture of the two genres. That’s also not to say that Baby Driver isn’t a really funny film, but it takes its drama seriously and creates real stakes and danger for its characters. Wright understands the dramatic irony of creating a character that can seemingly drive himself out of any situation, but can’t escape this danger he’s surrounded by. That tension really radiates off the screen as the film progresses, investing the audience in the surprisingly unpredictable story.
It feels like every character that Wright throws at his protagonist is adversarial towards him in one way or another, and he’s gotten a colorful cast of extremely talented actors to play off of Elgort’s quietly flavorful lead performance. In particular, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm play off of each other really well as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde of dangerous aggression. Foxx’s wisecracking gangster is a direct, no-nonsense threat towards Baby while Hamm’s at-first friendly persona simmers up to a scary boiling point. Wright knows exactly what he wants out of his actors, and he gets fantastic performances out of all of them.
Wright averages a film every three to four years, and while it’s a shame that we don’t get more from him, Baby Driver is the perfect example of why he’s worth the every second we wait for him. When given the time and space to develop his ideas and plan out piece by piece, his work is unmatched. Try to compromise his vision, and he’ll walk, like what happened in his tiff with Marvel over Ant-Man. Baby Driver is the sort of intellectual popcorn entertainment that many blockbusters aspire to be, yet are so unwieldily and compromised by studio mandates and conflicting visions that they never hit the target. This is a film of a singular genius working in rhythm to the beat of his creativity, and the results are truly music to the ears of all adoring film fans.