Baby Driver, in all of the best ways, emulates the joy and euphoria I used to indulge myself in over long, restless nights of playing 2010’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Cruising down long, winding roads, swerving through traffic at blazing speeds, and creatively finessing my way around squads of relentless police vehicles behind a personalized soundtrack tailored to the ebb and flow of the chaos before me were virtual thrills that constantly came to mind during the wide assortment of action sequences that pepper the film’s 113-minute running time. But Baby Driver doesn’t only work as a car enthusiast’s adrenaline-fueled wet dream come to life; it establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind experience with a remarkable personality all its own. What starts as a music-timed sequence of j-turns and powerslides evolves into an engaging story with a brisk pace, a colorful cast, and a dynamic lead that perfectly embodies the spirit and ambitions that director Edgar Wright sought after here.
Ansel Elgort is Baby, a wheelman with a heart of gold (and a cassette tape collection that would make Peter Quill blush) who’s stuck in a lifestyle he can’t seem to escape. Suffering from Tinnitus – a direct result of a fatal incident he was involved in as a child – he sounds out the drumming in his ears with iPods aplenty, and music for days. It helps him find his own rhythm in the world, and somewhat augments his capabilities as a getaway driver. Like the condition he lives with for the rest of his life, however, his elite prowess behind the wheel lingers with him wherever he goes. After coming square with an arrangement he has with Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby considers his future; one that is highlighted by the effervescent presence of diner waitress, Debora (Lily James). Doc has other ideas, and before you know it one refreshingly clever reference to another movie (*cough cough, Scorcese, *cough cough) foreshadows what those other ideas may lead to. The film presents the tone of Baby’s relationships to both Doc and Debora through his music: a staying force that both channels the fantasy and bewilderment that encourages people to strut down the block with swagger and dance feverishly when they’re in love, and frames the blood-soaking grit and realism that provides the viewer with a pertinent emotional connection to Baby and his plight.
Baby is a central component to everything that goes on in Baby Driver – from the successful bank heists, to the swirling black hole of chaos that shortly follows. Edgar Wright makes this apparent through two wonderfully constructed elements: the film’s soundtrack, and its direction. The action here is breathtaking in more ways than one, gracefully capturing the video game-esque fluidity of Baby’s driving skills and the various amount of ways he manages to slip through the fingers of the authorities. What heightens these moments of frenetic bliss is how the music coincides with their rhythm. Car doors slam in unison to thumping kick drums and bangs of drum hats. Bullets fly in sync with guitar riffs. Abrupt cutoffs in the music being played are timed with bodies falling onto the hoods of vehicles and sudden car crashes. Hell, even the little things like fingers slapping through stacks of cash, toe taps and hazard light sounds match the beat of whatever’s playing in the background.
La La Land‘s penchant for mixing music with the sounds of daily activity scream throughout the action in Baby Driver in the sense that the effects of it here transcend past superficial swagger; we get a genuine sense of who Baby is as a person. His soundtrack is his temple, quieting out the deficiency that’s scarred him eternally, but it’s also his link to the past and the youthful exuberance that’s carried over into adulthood. As an orphan and an aspiring DJ, his careful curation of 60s soul, 70s classic rock, 80s hip-hop and 90s indie pop all translate into his love for others and the innocence he tries valiantly to retain throughout the course of the movie. Thanks to a rock solid performance by the lead man, Elgort makes his shoes easy for us to fit into. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I smiled over watching Baby express himself to his deaf foster father (played brilliantly by actually deaf comedian CJ Jones) and flirt helplessly with Debora over coffee; it’s impossible to not be able to relate to him.
Baby Driver does well for itself by seeking out quality in quantity with its cast. Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza Gonzalez among others round out the film’s delicate grouping of characters with spirited performances. This movie quickly acknowledges the impact the actual robbers could have on the message Wright methodically exposes, and does right by the various slate of partners Baby’s assigned to by making each one unique and compelling. It also helps that their backstories are peeled away slowly, and the ambiguity behind their personalities isn’t compromised in the process. The second half of Baby Driver nosedives out of its more lighthearted trappings to elicit a sort of trigger-happy thriller, and while the transition lacks some of the magic that makes the first half so special, it manages to work because of the tonal shift provided by the intensifying heist squad dynamic – and the flexible soundtrack, too.
Along with directing the film, Wright was also directly involved in the screenplay, and it shows with the way he plays to the strengths of each and every actor and actress involved. Foxx is unapologetically belligerent, Hamm ranges from cool and collected to reckless and deranged, and Jon Bernthal practically revises his role as Shane from The Walking Dead. Sign language-laden dialogue between Baby and Joseph provide bountiful comedic relief while failing to stray from its strong emotional context. Then there’s Kevin Spacey, who’s cold, calculating delivery is basically authentic at this point. He commands his screentime in just about every scene, registering as a sort of surrogate father for Baby as he holds a firm hold over his team. The script overall is consistently grin-inducing, with plenty of humorous remarks and metaphors that both stand out on their own and keep the upbeat spirit of the film pacing through it like blood to veins.
Again, Baby Driver rests its laurels squarely on its main character, and its thematic scope never interferes with its narrative focus. Although the cast generally gets enough time to be fleshed out, Wright manages to find key connections to Baby as he struggles with keeping his hands clean and his conscience on a virtuous path. The film’s gradual descent into darker territory is handled carefully, and the push/pull that Baby constantly wrestles with gets rightfully brushed up to the forefront in the film’s climax. In a way, Baby Driver becomes a much different movie here, but the energy and immediacy of its action – along with its beautiful marriage of particle effects and musical cues – cease to waver. Very rarely can an action film provide such a broad spectrum of emotions and moods yet still maintain the essential components that arrested the viewer in the first place.
The sole purpose of a summer flick is to provide popcorn entertain for all to enjoy, but Baby Driver‘s ambitions drive it (pun intended) way past conventions in all the best ways. It’s got the musical dexterity of a personalized iPod spanning decades of greatest hits, matched with a creative focus that molds both ingredients into a final product we’ve never quite seen before. The uniqueness of the film’s approach wins over in so many ways that it’s immensely difficult to find an area where it’s at fault. From colorful characters and a clever sense of humor, to masterfully-orchestrated set-pieces and a brilliantly-used soundtrack you’ll be rushing to research soon after the credits roll, Baby Driver emerges out into the hot summer sun as one of the very best films you’ll see this season. It’s already a personal favorite of mine.
+ Ansel Elgort and Co. deliver on all fronts
+ Loving marriage of music and technical/sound effects create an atmosphere dipped in rhythm and swagger
+ Brisk pace and compelling story/character development
+ Fantastic set-pieces galore