Director: Edgar Wright
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey
On the day of its release, Edgar Wright tweeted “I’m pinching myself because
#BabyDriverMovie is a vision that I dreamt up 22 years ago and now it’s being released in cinemas worldwide.” Watching the film in the cinema – it’s oh-so natural home – you can well imagine the 22 years of meticulous imagining that went into it. Every beat, every footfall, revving engine feels set to its creator’s internal metronome; a metronome calibrated to a variety of source songs hand-picked to drive the movie forward, to tell its story.
Wright is one of the UK’s premier directors of kinetic action, something set out in the final act of Hot Fuzz and capitalised on throughout his comic book fightsical Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Having finished up the Cornetto Trilogy and parted ways with Marvel over Ant-Man, Wright evidently found himself in the position to finally turn this dream into a reality. And like all dreams it’s every bit owned by the dreamer; whether it means anything to anyone else is another story.
The good news for Wright is that his style is exceedingly amiable and his aforementioned string of hits have earned him a faithful fanbase who will almost certainly feel contented with the movie they’re presented with. And Wright is tailor-made for Hollywood; he’s a cineliterate consummate entertainer. Creative, but creative within defined genre boundaries. Like Tarantino, he’s a dependable purveyor of colourful entertainment pieces, happy playing magpie to pop culture’s shiniest objects.
Baby Driver concerns Baby (Elgort), a talented wheel man under the thumb of Spacey’s local hood Doc (inspired casting). Baby draws attention and courts controversy with the crews he drives for thanks to his unusual demeanor; he seldom speaks and spends all his time listening to music stored on a variety of iPods about his person – this last to drown out the ring of tinnitus in his ears following a traumatic car accident at a young age. He abhors violence, but he owes a debt and he is incredibly skilled at what he does. When we join him he’s almost square with Doc. Almost.
He also happens upon love – or a Hollywood version thereof – at local diner Bob’s. The new waitress in town, Debora (Lily James), catches his eye and a few smooth lines later the attraction is reciprocated. But being the wheel man for a crime boss comes with inherent dangers, especially when you have an innocent but foolhardy habit of tape recording conversations. Events conspire to push Baby to become as violent as those around him in order to keep safe those that are precious to him.
Baby Driver is, actually, exceedingly unoriginal. Variations of this well-worn story can be found scattered throughout the long history of American crime films. Both Ryan O’Neal’s stint as The Driver and Ryan Gosling’s work for Nicolas Winding Refn spring immediately to mind when considering Baby. Like those men, like Kowalski in Vanishing Point, Baby is a man of few words and fewer emotions. Elgort’s performance is closed down, not even reacting when threatened with violence from Jamie Foxx’s maniac Bats. Only two people are catalyst for any form of significant response; Debora and his deaf foster-father (CJ Jones). These two endearing characters ultimately become bargaining chips in the narrative, with act three boiling down, essentially, to a Save The Princess routine as things spiral out of Baby’s control. The film’s trailer might not give the whole game away, but you can take a guess at the motions here and you’ll be pretty close to right.
So Baby Driver is lacking in terms of narrative surprises. This may well be entirely intentional. Like the aforementioned Tarantino, Wright is fond of tipping his hat to cinematic milestones and pop icons. These references are scattered everywhere throughout his filmography, not least in his stella work way-back-when on cult sitcom Spaced. Baby Driver affords Wright the opportunity to take one of American cinema’s favourite archetypes (the strong, silent type) and one of its favourite genres (the driving movie) and present them injected with his own particular sensibilities.
The results are sometimes incredible. If Scott Pilgrim was a fightsical – a musical with fighting – then Baby Driver is almost a straight-up musical built entirely from source music. It’s opening credits vie with Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 for the year’s most joyfully exuberant, with pop song lyrics graffitied into the architecture as Wright and his DP Bill Pope cruise beside Baby in a long tracking shot to the coffee shop and back. It’s carefully choreographed so that these messages pop up perfectly in sync with the song; a meticulous endeavour repeated throughout the movie in other ways. And Wright is loyal to his favourite artists with the likes of Queen, Boards Of Canada and T-Rex receiving their time in the sun. If nothing else, one imagines a night in at Wright’s place sounds pretty excellent. So car doors slam when beats drop, rapid gunfire hits the same staccato rhythms as whatever’s currently pounding on the soundtrack. The entire film is paced out to its songs, one after another. Like an actually competent Sucker Punch (hey, Jon Hamm again).
This is all very clever of Wright and lends Baby Driver the same kind of buoyant charm as, say, a Michel Gondry music video. But it’s something of an overplayed trick in a film that leaves you wondering where the heart is. I referred to Baby’s romance with Debora as a Hollywood romance. It exists in the film within a set of ultra-stylised quotation marks. Wright plays to tropes (even so far as under-writing his female characters). We recognise it as love because this is how love looks in the movies, not because it resonates with any sense of realism. Don’t get me wrong; Baby and Debora are easy to root for. They’re the kind of couple you can believe will be young forever, but, as with everything else here, they are only as real as any given moment feels, and each moment feels meticulously constructed. For Wright the style might very well be the substance.
But like his contemporary master stylists – Wes Anderson or, yes, Quentin Tarantino – that layer of flamboyant artifice is, in itself, a wall. As these masters of aesthetics hone and hone their methodologies, they risk leaving us outside. Still, Baby Driver is a raucous, action packed crowd-pleaser. Those surface pleasures do their job well enough.
And, of course, the soundtrack album’s out now.