The films of writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim, The World’s End) are a balancing act of homaging, spoofing, and revitalizing whatever genre he’s working in (he’s like Tarantino’s kid brother). His latest flick is in the crime genre and takes a subway ride through sub-genres like the heist film, gangster film, and car film.
Baby Driver is bound by crime film cliches that it excitedly embraces, but what it has up its sleeve is a clever hook. What if a getaway driver had to listen to music and the whole film was synced up with his music? Cue car chases all over Atlanta as if it’s a 2 hour hot wheels commercial. There’s a silent hero, a girl in need of rescuing, bad guys after our hero, and a whole lot of action. Baby Driver is Edgar Wright embracing genre as a fairy tale he dreamt up as a teen.
The titular baby driver is Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, a baby faced getaway driver who listens to music while he drives because of tinnitus from a car accident when he was young. He’s re-paid a debt and now wants to do one final job before he leaves the crime game, but that’s easier said than done.
This is the MOST Edgar Wright movie, which means it’s full of his best and worst tendencies. He’s crafted a blast of genre cinema that veers between explicit homage, adolescent spoof, and energetic car sequences that revitalize a dead genre. The wind-up and explode action is full of toys from Wright’s favorite crime films and he uses his favorite songs as fuses. He’s made a film that coasts on being “cool.” If you popped the hood and looked inside you’d see little depth, but Baby Driver is consistently cool enough that most won’t think to look inside.
Notably missing here is Wright’s greatest strength: dry British wit that made his Cornetto trilogy so distinct and unmistakably his. Here he’s going for American gangster humor, but it never lands. The Hollywood cast is here to look pretty and cool, but they don’t have that dirty, authentic quality you see in something like Thief or Reservoir Dogs; so, the dialogue comes off as immature and forced. Thankfully, Wright’s editing and timing make for some good one liners.
Stylistically this is a continuation — or rather, acceleration — of his excellent buddy cop film, Hot Fuzz (2007). There’s 0 – 60MPH edits and quick zooms accelerating scenes that would be monotonous in most films (looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Gun shots are cut along to the music with precision. The camera movements dance to the beat. It’s an impressive exercise in visual verve meeting sonic sensation.
The hot wheels world of Baby Driver is intentionally artificial and want you to feel like you’re watching a movie with a capital M, but it’s missing a few key ingredients. The film’s referenced classics (Bullitt, The Driver, Wild at Heart, Point Break etc.) have an authenticity, romanticism, and in some cases, a sense of tragedy that only make their way into Wright’s car caper as copies, imitations, spoofs. However, Baby Driver does achieve a level of originality with its clever premise that has clearly been brewing in Wright’s mind for years.
Boomers and Gen X’ers have played the silent getaway driver, but Baby is the first millennial one. Ansel Elgort is too generic in the role and puts a brake on this film ever fully hitting full speed. It’s a role that begs for someone oozing charisma (think McQueen or Delon or Gosling), but Elgort and Wright still pull off something key about millennials: their appearance — and obsession with appearance — are obvious, but their real identities exist in the interior worlds they create through technology. The subjective POV of the hero takes us into Baby’s self created identity that’s reflected through a carefully curated carousel of pop culture. When Baby decides he wants to try to escape this crime world and run off with his southern belle girlfriend, Debora (Lily James), the music doesn’t just reflect his feelings, it creates it. Baby Driver aims to express its quiet hero’s emotions through a mixtape that clarifies and creates his mindset. The film is too cluttered with plot and too broad with its characters to elicit these emotions from the audience, but they help us understand Baby’s mental state without him explaining it. Baby fills himself, a silent archetype, with pop music for purpose; the film, for better and worse, does the same thing.
Wright’s drifting into spoof, miscast leads, and overwritten dialogue stop Baby Driver from nearing the level of something like Drive (2011), a film that sneakily siphoned inspiration from classics and became a cult sensation. Wright’s film is content in being a well oiled homage. The only times it veers off the track is in the noisy finale that goes too big for a film that had previously been sleek, and in an unnecessary epilogue.
The Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) are films with comedic intelligence and authentic human emotions at the center. I don’t know that there’s a better horror film about entering middle age than Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz, seemingly a buddy cop film, is a dissection of societal facades and generational divides (also a precursor to Trump’s America). The World’s End is one of the greatest modern films about reconciling with the passage of time. Baby Driver sees Wright trying to broaden his audience. It’s a film that’s, disappointingly, tuned for a younger and broader crowd. No doubt the shiniest and most technically impressive genre romp he’s made, but it lacks the human core and wit of his great Cornetto films.
Wright’s sixth film is 110% HOLLYWOOD. There’s quotable one liners. The cast is beautiful. The set pieces are big. Wright has laid down a track of generic characters and a predictable plot, but the style in which he explores his race track is a delight.
Baby Driver is a state of the art Mario Kart race that takes you for a synced-up ride through the crime genre and its various sub-genres. It only has a few gears, and never reaches the level of the films it’s inspired by, but when Edgar Wright’s genre jukebox is firing on all cylinders with heists, one liners, and music, it’s the most fun movie of the summer so far. You’ve seen car chase films like this before, but you’ve never heard them like this.
Grade: B- Hollywood will only produce more original films like this if people go see them! I’m personally disappointed, but it’s no doubt a good romp at the movies.