Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Edgar Wright (screenplay)
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx
Synopsis: After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.
Completely sober thought here, but the best concert to attend this week is the one with no musician and instrument. Not the conventional kind, anyway, when the headliner is a filmmaker and automobiles are the tools of the band. Disparities aside, this zippy and roaring caper from Edgar Wright (of Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy fame) can still prompt audiences to behave when a show reaches its zenith: stand up and rock out.
Getaway maestro Baby (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus when young, after a car accident that orphaned him, and the only way to soothe the ringing is with tunes. Any will do, though he has exceptional taste in music. Since they would power Baby through every roadblock and cook up neat maneuvers, cunning heist orchestrator Doc (Kevin Spacey) is absolutely proud of his wheelman. New-age Bonnie and Clyde, mischievous Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and rugged Buddy (Jon Hamm), also agree. Only one unimpressed is the obnoxious gangster Bats (Jamie Foxx), who always has “How can I be the crew’s top dog?” on full-blast in his head.
Wright made a musical before, the rock-oriented Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but 2010’s questionable taste in movies (The Expendables won the box-office crown) and music (hello, Justin Bieber) have effectively – and unfortunately – kept the homemade band where they are. For good. The U.S. fanfare was absent to recognize the director’s distinct blending of styles, crafting of golden banter and sculpting of characters – rotten and otherwise – into shades of cool. Rejecting a made-by-Wright film is turning down an invite to live a dream life, one where planning with the guts is preferred, Wright-speak is the language to learn, every moment has a great-and-above soundtrack and a pro d.o.p. (Bill Pope, in this case) is never off-duty. With all these items at their sharpest in Baby Driver, easy to realize is how much craftsmanship and energy has been poured into making riding shotgun with Atlanta’s finest driver akin to watching New Year’s Eve fireworks in the front row.
Besides the flair factor, also inherent when Wright is at the helm is love. After a fleeting glimpse at radiant waitress Deborah (Lily James) while on an astounding Ryan Heffington-choreographed coffee run, Baby finds himself in the diner where she works and has her gentle crooning of Carla Thomas’ B-A-B-Y on tape. Talks of songs and laundromats evolve into a way out for each and a life with both in the picture. Elgort and James’ instant compatibility in looks and click in chemistry make them a couple worth rooting for, or feel sorry for when the criminal life keeps separating the two, at one point to Sam and Dave’s When Something is Wrong with My Baby. Acclaimed composer Steven Price and the soundtrack crew’s knack to match song to scene is used more properly here than Suicide Squad, serving the “driven by music” vision in a manner more collaborative to the story, more harmonious with the footage and less insulting to audiences’ musical knowledge. No Slim Shady to hammer home the team’s off-kilter nature, thankfully.
Baby has two other important relationships as well, all familial – one with a deaf surrogate father, Joseph (CJ Jones), and the other with Doc (his personal Miyagi). The former’s story is better-developed, thanks to a kindness visible in Jones’ eyes, but Spacey’s intensity helps prevent his plot device of a character from becoming extraneous. Since Hot Fuzz, characters have become a weaker gear in Wright’s works, still a colorful bunch that check the terms of entertainment but little reason to be noteworthy.
Luckily, Baby Driver has the best material to repair any pothole it has: focus. While high-profile releases vault right off the drawing board with fantasy of multiverses, Wright’s fifth outing aims to perfect itself as a one-off experience first. Where vehicle-involved actioners escalate the carnage while setting ablaze their rulebooks (isn’t that right, late-phase Fast & Furious or xXx?), this film stays humble in scale yet astounds in execution. When rapid-fire editing is to be in vogue, its purpose here is to build Baby either as a crewman with skill or lover in jeopardy.
Baby Driver has a confined climax that deprives the film – a chase film – a coup de grace. Color what Wright has done in this respect similar to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but the cramped nature of it all brings the personal stakes forward, majorly. And without forgetting it is a part of an “audio-prioritized” experience, this ultimate set piece is the most ear-ringing, literally and figuratively, and spotlights the most killer track in Baby’s playlist.
There is a sadness when the film, like any song, welcomes the fade out after the crescendo. The thing about a newly discovered favorite track, however, is that the brain will play it at the most unexpected of times, a prompt to smile usually in tow. Personally, Baby Driver has been doing that since the press screening on Wednesday.
Have to tone down the subsequent elation a bit, still, or else people will think that alcohol is in the system.
Overall Grade: A
Hear our podcast review on Episode 228, coming soon.