Edgar Wright has a reverence for movies, he knows his movies, and when he makes his own movies there’s always an inherent understanding of the cinematic landscape–taking what’s already been done and proceeding to add his own affectionate spin on it.
There are aspects of his filmography from Shaun of the Dead (2004), to Hot Fuzz (2007), and Scott Pilgrim (2010) that are familiar but you can never accuse him of being derivative because he seems fairly incapable of that mode of filmmaking. Coming from such a tradition of off-kilter modern classics, it’s no surprise that Baby Driver is far from your typical heist film though it boasts both cars and crime in equal measures.
Part of what sets it apart is a soundtrack, something that has been put back in vogue recently by films such as Guardians of the Galaxy. It reflects how popular music can replace a score by tying itself so closely to the plot and the most important elements of its characters so much so that it becomes vital even to the narrative arc.
In this case, it involves Baby (Ansel Elgort) a young getaway driver plagued by the memory of a life-shattering car crash, one of the many traumas being tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that he helps to alleviate by constantly blocking it out with music. Thus, he can be found with a ubiquitous pair of earbuds tucked into his auditory canals ready with an iPod Classic full of tunes for every occasion (He even has a pink one with sparkles).
Of course, his driving songs prove to be the most important and he uses music to keep himself in the zone when he’s making the getaway. What helps him concentrate proves to be an equally thrilling experience for the audience, immersing us in the action in the most utterly electrifying and crowd-pleasing way possible. Cars swerving this way and that down the busy urban jungle of Atlanta with retro tunes blasting in surround sound. If that doesn’t epitomize a summer blockbuster than little does.
Criminal types including a psycho killer named Bats (Jamie Foxx) and an armed and dangerous couple Buddy & Darling (Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez respectively) are only a few of the colorful figures Baby falls into company with. Doc (Kevin Spacey) is their contact who runs all their operations with a plethora of inside contacts and a dry no-nonsense precision. He trusts Baby because he’s never steered him wrong. But it does beg the question how did this young man get himself into this life?
Because when he’s off “work” he spends time caring for his deaf foster father (CJ Jones), mixes audio cassette tapes out of his bedroom and frequents the local cafe that his mother used to work at. There’s also a waitress (Lily James) in said diner who intrigues him and brings him out of his shell with genial vivacity. They share music as much as they share aspirations and mundane conversations.
But the danger is that the soundtrack becomes a gimmick and it’s true that Wright does a couple of no-nos including having his characters meet and subsequently fall in love over music, namely Carla Thomas’s 1966 hit “BABY” and Beck’s “Debora.” That’s an unforgivable cliche and yet we still want it and in his very best sequences he builds around the cadence and rhythms of the complementary songs that fit immaculately with the editing too. Whether a jaunt to grab coffee, the mundane creation of a peanut butter sandwich or a car chase, each becomes like a musical dance that’s surprisingly fresh.
If the genres of musicals and chase films ever had a point of intersection it would be Baby Driver. These opening moments have the energy of a Gene Kelly musical or even this past year’s La La Land pulsing through them. But it’s equally indebted to the heritage of The Driver (1978), Drive (2011), and of course the king of the heap, Bullitt (1968). The bottom line is that there is a care to deliver the goods as expected and have fun while doing it. There’s something refreshing about practical stunts that don’t utilize CGI and nevertheless manage to feel all the more exhilarating and real. There’s no question that this is an action film. But an action film set to the beat of the music.
Unfortunately, after setting such a fascinating groundwork for a film and delivering on a concept that seems admittedly absurd at times, it does feel that Baby Driver descends into utter chaos–action film hell if we want to coin a term–full of profane violence. No longer does it fully utilize the concept that it was built around or the engaging methods it initially used to draw the audience into yet another colorful creation of genre fiend Edgar Wright.
It’s as if the final act of the film doesn’t quite know where to go. The characters start to deviate from the axes that they have been moving on thus far. Not unsurprisingly Buddy is bent on getting revenge on Baby but Baby also shows a darker side without much provocation and Doc suddenly becomes a romantic sticking his neck out for the young lovebirds. There’s a certain amount of confusion on what direction to go next.
However, you could easily make the case that these developments are simply mirroring reality for a getaway driver, especially one as young as Baby. This is partially a tale of maturation. Losing innocence and trying to find it again without completely blocking out the world around you. In the end, the film settles down just enough into a conclusion that fits the parameters set up in the beginning. It’s lifted from the bloody wreckage and actually slows down long enough to ground itself in its characters once more as stylish and satisfying as ever.