It’s hard to find a truly original action movie these days. The vast majority are some sort of variation on Rambo or The Fugitive. Like songs featuring the word “baby,” they all tend to start feeling the same. But, every so often, the world of cinema is blessed with a truly original and refreshing action voice. Think of Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, The Wachowskis’ The Matrix or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.
Add to that list writer/director Edgar Wright, who apparently didn’t get the memo when it comes to the action movie playbook. The British filmmaker has spent his career crafting wildly original and completely delightful comedy-action combos like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. His films often combine action thrills, quirky laughs and even some profound cultural commentary.
Wright’s first film in four years, Baby Driver easily overcomes its odd title by exuding Wright’s patented blend of nerdy-cool. It’s also, in all the ways that count, his most accomplished film to date, blending jaw-dropping car stunts with an infectious soundtrack, whip-smart dialogue and memorable characters.
The titular driver is one Baby (Ansel Elgort, never better), a charming street rat and music junkie who frequently indulges his penchant for fast cars. When he is caught red-handed by Doc (Kevin Spacey) during one of his escapades, he is compelled to work for Doc to pay off his debt. Unfortunately, Doc’s line of work is of the…less than legal variety. Specifically, he is the mastermind behind a series of bank heists. Nonetheless, he takes Baby under his wing, and is soon a sort of father figure to the young rascal, who, as a child, lost his parents in a car accident and suffers a hearing disorder as a result of the crash (music drowns out the humming, apparently, so Baby just keeps his earbuds in at all times).
When we meet Baby in the film, he is one score away from settling his debt with Doc and wining his freedom. But his deaf adoptive father (CJ Jones) fears for his safety, and Baby is forced to keep new love interest, Debora (Lily James) in the dark about his shady associations.
Doc employs a variety of experienced thugs to pull off these increasingly ambitious heists, including Griff (Jon Bernthal), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the murderously unhinged Bats (Jaime Foxx). But none is more important that the getaway driver. Behind the wheel, Baby is in his element, a combination of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Vin Diesel’s Dom. He pulls off his final heist in spectacular fashion, but will Doc really let his number one driver off so easy? And will the kind-hearted Baby be able to stomach Bats’ increasingly risky acts of extreme violence? He dreams of riding off into the sunset with Debora, no destination in mind, but Baby soon finds that reality is a bit messier than his sepia-toned reveries.
The thing that immediately draws you into Baby Driver’s world is just how cool it is. Effortlessly so. It feels like Wright and company barely even tried. Considering how many action flicks try and fail to be “hip,” that is no small feat. The film owes its vibe, largely, to the soundtrack. This is the kind of flick that wouldn’t be possible without its music. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie uses every opportunity to let music do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Even more so than Galaxy, it integrates the music into the story in ways both big and small. Obviously, thanks to Baby’s hearing condition, music plays a huge part in how he views the world. This dude is frankly obsessed. Who else would create mixtapes based on samplings of random conversations he has throughout the day? Who else would, after a successful heist, refuse to drive away until the song playing hits the right section?
Baby’s musical obsession also transfers over to the film’s visual style. Several scenes would feel at home in a musical, as machine guns pop to the beat during an intense shootout, or stacks of cash hit a table with rhythmic precision. It’s an editing technique unlike any I’ve ever seen, and Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss should be given major kudos (and an Oscar) for their pioneering work.
The tunes themselves are fantastic, ranging from retro R&B to the current indie scene. Baby’s tastes are eclectic, and so are Wright’s. It’s always fun to see a filmmaker geeking out about something they have passion for, and Wright is clearly the music junkie to end all music junkies.
Sure, the film has style to spare, but thankfully everything else in the film is equally impressive. These are, simply, some of the finest car chases ever put on film, and they’re only heightened by the kinetic energy of the soundtrack and energy. Seeing a sports car drive up a multi-level parking garage backwards at high speed is one for the books.
Wright also assembled an enviable cast, and everyone here is fantastic. I especially loves seeing Jon Hamm’s suave criminal turn into an unhinged psycho, but Jamie Foxx’s one-note, over-the-top baddie is also entertaining. But Elgort is the true star, and here he shows he can be a truly engaging actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his previous work, but maybe he just needed the right project to allow him to shine.
Baby Driver is a fire-on-all-cylinders thrill ride. Much like Wright’s previous films, it can be hard to recognize what a brilliant piece of craftsmanship it is when you’re having so much fun watching it. But brilliant it is. For a good chunk of the film, I was disappointed that the film didn’t feel like a signature Wright flick, but when the last third kicks in, we’re treated to the insane, balls-to-the-wall chaos we expect him to deliver.
There’s no use pretending that Baby Driver has much of a rich subtext or deep social commentary. It’s a fairly simple but engaging story told with no small amount of style. But there’s something to be said about a pure genre flick made with this much passion and artistry. This was clearly a labor of love, and it shows in every frame. From beginning to end, Baby Driver ranks with Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the finest action films of recent years. Don’t miss it.