Who doesn’t love a good car-chase movie? Those Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson flicks sure do seem to make a lot of money, but we could debate about whether those are actually car “chase” movies or car “wrecked” movies. Anyway, there are a number of cinemaphiles who preach the gospel of such flicks as Bullitt, To Live and Die in L.A. and (in a way) the Mad Max movies. I start this piece with mention of the style of those films, but I am already wondering if I’m going down the wrong path, as Edgar Wright’s latest, Baby Driver, is something altogether similar, yet wonderously unique among them.
Our driver is Baby (Ansel Elgort), an orphaned, insular kid who walks to his own beat, orchestrated by the buds in his ears, belting out one of hundreds of playlists that help to subdue the tinnitus he has suffered since a childhood tragedy, but more appealingly to Kevin Spacey’s Doc, the head of a bank-busting crime syndicate, it makes him the best getaway driver in the business. He’s so good that he’s the only constant member of crew that rotates it’s criminals between characters such as Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Bats (Jamie Foxx), among others. Baby owes Doc a large debt, and now that it’s almost paid off, he wants nothing more than to be done with a life of crime, and to just drive off into the sunset with Deborah (Lily James), the good-hearted waitress who sings her way into his life ("Baby - your name’s “Baby?” You get all of the good songs," she says to him during one of their breezy encounters).
So what makes this movie any different from the 70s influences (The Driver and Vanishing Point) that it wears on its sleeves as Go-Faster stripes? Well, aside from swapping the usual concrete jungles of Los Angeles or New York for the refreshing setting of Atlanta, Georgia, this movie is also kinda-sorta a musical. The opening sequence, a rip-roaring, white-knuckle chase set to "Bellbottoms" by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, shows masterful editing and spatial choreography. It also shows that Wright has his own ideas about what makes a good car chase - speed, sound, fury and locale, but not necessarily the smash-'em-up approach where a dozen cop cars have flipped over before the first left turn.
Then the opening title sequence immediately follows, and we begin to get the feel for the rhythm changes Wright will use throughout - a one-take tracking shot which follows Elgort as he picks up coffee, swings on lampposts, shadow-mimics graffiti, and awkwardly mimes to lyrics in the same way that we all do once submerged in our own in-ear soundtrack to our lives. All of the musical cues and ticks are so perfectly aligned to the on-screen action that the whole thing feels organic, part of one fluid machine.
The soundtrack is immense, sure to influence your life in the same way that it does Baby’s, with The Commodores “Easy (Like Sunday Morning)” a recurring motif that accompanies joy, revelation, and sadness. There’s also the lesser-known Queen track “Brighton Rock,” and the brilliance of Young MC’s “Know How.” These are just three from a litany of carefully-selected choices, from a director who wants his film to be informed by the same music that pieces together the fabric of Baby’s emotional arc. It’s an audio/visual jigsaw puzzle that pieces together almost perfectly.
It’s only when the brilliance of scenes such as a laundromat headphone waltz between James and Elgort, or the wonderfully-played exchanges with his deaf foster-father, give way to more straightforward action mechanics that the movie slows, but it never stalls. These speed-up/slow-downs in the movie’s pace also feel musical, a cadence of storytelling to match the feel of the soundtrack. Lines of dialogue are layered upon the rhythm of the action,and gunfire matches drumbeats in such a way that by then, you’re so attuned to the DNA of Wright’s film that you almost don’t notice them. Like all of the best albums, re-watches/listens will be a must.
The cast are uniformly great. Elgort was in line to play the young Han Solo, but here he has the chance to shoot first with a role that sets the bar for cool, as well as ensuring Baby has a vulnerable awkwardness, making his fate worth rooting for. Lily James compliments him perfectly in the hip-to-be-cool stakes, with whip sharp quips and Tarantino-style wordplay. Any worries that she’s simply on-board to be rescued by Baby go out the window by the time the satisfying coda plays out. Jamie Foxx plays the intimidation card to perfection, Kevin Spacey brings his Swimming-with-Sharks persona to the heist table, revelling in the chance to chew on Wright’s dialogue, and Jon Hamm gets an unpredictable arc, which doesn’t entirely work, but as always, he’s very watchable.
I thought a couple of characters began to behave out-of-character in the film’s climax, but by that time, the movie had generated so much goodwill with me that I was willing to forgive these imperfections. If Edgar Wright leaving the Ant-Man movie three years ago is the reason this movie got made, then I am definitely glad he and Marvel parted ways. Baby Driver is a pulse-pounding thriller, a film-noir, a heist movie, and also, of course, a musical, a love story, and a tale of tragedy buried underneath. It belongs in a discussion alongside those great heist/chase movies mentioned above, but it is so original that it will never be mistaken for any of them.