*** out of ****
(for violence and strong language throughout)
Released: June 28, 2017
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones
I think I just saw Quentin Tarantino’s favorite new movie.
No, Baby Driver isn’t Tarantino-esque in the sense that reference evokes. Rest assured, this is the next natural progression for director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), a master of contemporary pop cinema who riffs on styles with a style all his own.
And that’s exactly what a guy like Tarantino would love: a movie that puts a new spin on a classic genre, reimagining it rather than satirizing it, loving tropes rather than mocking them, infusing everything with pulpy high stakes and super cool swagger, all with heavy doses of vinyl-worthy music.
Okay, so this movie’s millennial hero listens to his tunes through earbuds, not on wax discs, but he’s still a maker of mixtapes – on actual cassettes – and his iPods (yes, plural) are first-gen retro. Baby’s hipster cache is fully intact.
Baby Driver is a crime thriller by way of neo-musical, cut to the beat – literally – of classic rock, pop, and R&B tracks. The actors don’t sing or dance, but songs and choreography are very much a part of this film’s glocks, shocks, and four smoking tires whirlwind.
Baby (aka the baby driver) is a young twenty-something who applies his unmatched driving skills to steering the getaway car for professional robbers. He listens to music non-stop, especially when driving, fueling him like a superpower. The film opens with a high-speed car chase through the streets of Atlanta, one that includes a really clever “shell game” visual. It follows a bank heist and, as vehicular mayhem erupts, Baby drives through it all with cool intensity and Jedi-like reflexes.
It’s also the last job of his young career, the final run that will pay off the debt he owes to the criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), the man who orchestrates these gigs. Of course, when a movie opens with one last job we know that it won’t be too long before Baby’s pulled right back in.
In this case, it’s very much against his will. The collateral violence and death, both on innocent people as well as among criminals themselves, is weighing hard on Baby’s conscience. He’s a good kid that Life dealt a bum break, and he wants to correct course. But Doc won’t let him.
The film’s first half sort of meanders through various relationship setups and new robber teams, and while it’s all done with panache the success of the overall experience comes down to two things: do you dig Baby, and do you love being inundated (at times pummeled) by a near-non-stop soundtrack.
The songs are great, no doubt, and include the ditty that inspired the title character’s name (if you don’t know the classic, that means you’re not old), but they’re also indicative of the opening act’s style-over-substance simplicity. After awhile you begin to wonder if there’s any “there” there, not in terms of thematic depth (because who needs it in a movie like this?) but simply in characters and relationships you actually care about beyond dangerous cool people who butt heads, and a sweet if standard love interest for Baby at the local diner.
More frankly, Baby Driver could use less Baby and more driving.
What would that contradiction even mean? It means that there’s not nearly as much driving as one would expect (#FastButNotAlwaysFurious), and the character development roads that the script goes down feel rather conventional, even with Wright’s gift for dialogue and humor (although the sentimental connection between Baby and his deaf foster dad is the film’s best).
But more than anything, as Baby, Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars) isn’t quite the charismatic screen presence you’d hope for, or that the role really needs. To his credit, Elgort improves as the film goes along, and he rises to the occasion down the final stretch when circumstances cause Baby to make brave, bold choices, but he’s never strong enough to make you want to see more of this Baby in a sequel, or to have directors give him a shot in meatier material. He’s a respectable actor, but a star is not born.
Indeed, the entire supporting cast essentially upstages the lead. A forgivable downside, as they’re responsible for so much of the movie’s fun, tension, and thrills. Every casting choice is on point, with Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm being every bit as cool as you’d expect them to be while also adding an intimidating punch.
Wright is in complete and total control of every moment in this thing, including the excesses, so even if you find its indulgences to be overkill (mileage will vary, pun intended) there’s no doubt this is exactly the movie that Wright wanted to make. He’s always been a precise visionary, not one who shoots for “coverage”, yet even as some sequences here required multiple cameras rolling you can still see that it’s all by design, not Wright doing an editorial CYA.
Even with all that style, however, one can’t help but feel there’s something missing – an intangible – without Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Wright’s Brit-crew in the picture. It’s commendable that Wright expands outside that safety net, and does so successfully here, but it’ll take time to reproduce the chemistry that comes from his comfort zone.
All that nitpicking having been said, Baby Driver is not a movie to overthink. As Guillermo del Toro tweeted, this is a beautiful example of an inspired filmmaker who, after being dumped by Marvel on Ant-Man,”comes out of a debacle with a movie that declares his credo again.”
This is a cinematic ride to enjoy and Wright makes it easy to, especially as he brings the first half’s loose threads together (not unlike a great mixtape) into sharp, potent focus, and in occasionally surprising ways; it’s just not the new modern masterpiece that some have overhyped it be.
But it doesn’t need to be. Baby Driver is why people go to the movies. So go.