Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a talented getaway driver in the employ of a crime boss called Doc (Kevin Spacey). He constantly listens to music as a way of drowning out the tinnitus he contracted during a childhood car crash that killed both his parents. After his last heist, he begins to settle down, striking up a romance with a local waitress Debora (Lily James). But when he’s coerced into one more job with a collection of the more dangerous robbers he’s driven for, he determines to abandon this life forever by driving off into the blue with Debora without letting on to the criminals who’ve come to rely on him.
Wright is definitely a big fan of elaborate car chases, as there are plenty of those in this movie. They never quite go to the ridiculous extremes of the Fast and Furious movies, but they’re still really impressive. The twists thrown in and methods Baby uses to avoid being caught, even while being tailed by enough police cars to rival Blues Brothers are terrifically creative, fast-paced, and thrilling. When not engaged in these sequences though, we’re privy to the bizarre but likeable story of a young man trying to find a better life among a career of high-octane high-speed pursuits. And it’s a thoroughly well-written story too. While Wright has his feet rooted in comedy, his last couple films have hinted at the more dramatic, and here his focus is clearly on the action and drama aspects more. There’s great tension to a handful of scenes in the last act, and Wright knows how to script dialogue that better mounts it. This is a superbly smart film; one that goes in a couple unexpected directions in the end, with regards to at least three characters.
Ansel Elgort is fantastic as Baby. His dialogue whenever he’s not around Debora, is minimal, but he can get across a lot through his expression, both the intentionally unsure, and the calm mysteriousness of his feelings. Though he never says a word on the subject in the movie, you get a clear impression what his attitude is to civilians being collateral damage during jobs. Jamie Foxx is intimidating as an unhinged gangster called Bats, John Hamm delivers a performance unlike any I’ve seen from him as Buddy, Eliza Gonzalez is pretty good as Buddy’s lover Darling, and Lily James is certainly better here than she’s ever been. The film also features Paul Williams and CJ Jones in a really heart-warming role as Joseph, Baby’s deaf foster father. Jon Bernthal, despite his title credit, has little more than a cameo as one of the criminals Baby’s drives in the opening sequence. And then there’s Kevin Spacey, who’s probably my favourite character. I think it’s in how he treats others like he’s the boss in an office: genial, funny, and charming despite being a criminal strategist. In one scene, he threatens Baby in the most amiable way. But he has real pride in Baby, defending him when others doubt his capabilities, and is ultimately one of the most interesting elements in the film.
The music in Baby Driver is of course very important, but it’s as much in how its used as the selections themselves. Music permeates this movie, and undercuts most scenes whether amplified or softened, to the point the scenes without it are more noticeable in tone for its absence. Edgar Wright has always had a great sense of rhythm and employs music in this film the way he does jokes in a comedy. Where in Spaced or Hot Fuzz, a precisely timed cut or edit would punctuate a joke all the more, the action of Baby Driver is choreographed to a musical beat to a similar effect. Wright’s great directorial strength is in his edits, and there’s enough creative and funny ones in this movie, such as transitioning a radio dial to a restaurant coaster or shooting a panoramic tracking shot where what’s happening in the background is more important. Of course there’s a hefty variety of music in this soundtrack, Baby not being very picky in his tastes, including Queen, the Beach Boys, The Commodores, Barry White, Blur, T.Rex, Beck, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and of course, Simon & Garfunkel (who wrote the song “Baby Driver” in 1970).
Baby Driver is a brilliant unconventional movie. Though grounded in a solid character arc, it features increasingly amazing and eccentric car chases (and a few car-jackings), a character who makes mix-tapes out of conversations he records, and one scene that suddenly becomes Free Fire for a few minutes. But it’s unmistakeably Edgar Wright, and is as entertaining, mad, inventive, and clever as his films always are.