Edgar Wright (Sean of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) is a director with a capital D, perhaps the heavyweight champion of current genre filmmaking. All of his films thus far, even the somewhat lacking The World’s End, masterfully balance subverting traditional tropes while still embracing them to the nth degree. Enter Baby Driver, a high-velocity heist flick that puts its foot on the gas and its radio to eleven from the opening seconds. We’ve got a smoldering getaway driver with a heart of gold, a group of colorful crooks and a sweet as pie waitress. In many ways, it’s Wright’s most traditional film, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a far more subdued protagonist than the Simon Pegg and Michael Cera characters of yore. Afflicted with a nasty case of tinnitus, he mostly keeps to himself unless he’s got something to prove. As we watch the other characters react to his odd behavior, he almost turns into an otherworldly screen presence. Fortunately, Elgort does a terrific job of humanizing Baby while keeping his mystique intact. He’s quiet and reserved around his team of posturing criminals him but smooth as silk behind the wheel. His relationship with Debora (Lilly James) is surprisingly sweet, albeit a little generic, keeping him even closer to the ground when the shit really hits the fan.
There certainly isn’t a short supply of crazy in the supporting cast. Kevin Spacey oozes venom as Doc, the ringleader of our band of outlaws. While not purely a mustache-twirling villain, he spends most of the movie shooting people down in prime Spacey fashion. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are both delightfully warped as Baby’s main cohorts, with Foxx, in particular, getting to cut loose far more than he has in years. These characters are practically ripped right out of Grand Theft Auto, with Wright capturing the over the top flavor of video game characters better than any actual adaptation has. Not all of the characters are smash hits though. Jon Bernthal makes a brief and mostly silent appearance that feels like one supporting character too many, while Eliza González is given little to do besides grind on Jon Hamm (although that’s certainly not a bad gig).
The lyrical dialogue here is borderline poetic, often sounding like it was written in meter. It’s all deliciously over the top while still giving each character their own unique voice. Wright also lacks the masturbatory obsession with his dialogue that Quentin Tarantino and his ilk have come to lean on. Even though things get a bit slow middle of the film, each individual scene is perfectly paced. The best lines get in, out, and we’re on to the next thing.
The real centerpiece here is Wright’s use of music to propel almost every second of the narrative. His style is a bit more reserved than his previous work, lacking the borderline manic inserts, cut aways and zooms that have become his trademark. Even so, he still uses every corner of the frame to tell a little bit of the story. Baby’s fixation on music is all encompassing. Crashing cars and flying bullets often sync perfectly with whatever’s on his playlist, with each of the action sequences meticulously edited as if they were music videos.
However, this musical heartbeat isn’t exactly the religious experience that some have propped it up to be. Wright’s playlist, while a lot of fun, ends up being a little constrained to classic rock tunes. You’d expect this gimmick to expand to a few other genres but it really doesn’t. The car chases, while impressively captured, also start to get a little generic after a while. They’re certainly not bad, they just lack some of the personality that the rest of the film has in spades. It could have used just a hair more quirkiness to seem as muscular as it clearly wants to be. That said, everything heats up in the third act, with Wright delivering a glorious onslaught of violence that would make Sam Peckinpah blush.
While Baby Driver sometimes falls victim to Wright’s desire to tell a more palatable story, there’s still plenty of cool to go around. It’s teaming with wicked humor, bangin’ tunes and even a little heart to keep it from getting too cartoonish (looking at you Fate of the Furious). Hopefully, this will allow Wright to return to the studio system after the disastrous fallout from Ant-Man so that he can continue to spice up dismal summers for years to come.
Drive safe on the way home, folks.