Stylish, beautifully executed, and slick as a ’65 Mustang, director Edgar Wright’s new release Baby Driver speeds into theaters this week, and is likely to mow down most of the competition on word of mouth alone. It’s the sort of movie that brings a spring to your step and reminds you why you love movies. You’ll walk out having to remind yourself you aren’t a race car driver, and you and your friends aren’t a motley crew, fresh from a bank heist, taking it on the lamb.
Baby, (Ansel Elgort from The Fault in Our Stars) is young and incredibly talented behind the wheel of any car. He is trapped working off a debt to criminal kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), who sees his getaway driver Baby as a good luck charm on every job. Orphaned as a child, and suffering with Tinnitus, Baby uses music to drown out the ringing in his ears, and the thoughts trying to creep into his head about the dirty work he does. It’s work his loving, deaf foster father (C.J. Jones) wants him to quit. On jobs, he is constantly skirting conflict with an ever-rotating roster of crazy, high-strung criminals, including sociopathic lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) and short-fused killer Bats (Jamie Foxx). When he meets lovely, innocent waitress Debora (Lily James of Cinderella), he both loses his heart, and determines to leave the violence he is becoming more and more an accessory to, behind.
Wright isn’t reinventing the race car wheel here, but he is bringing something new to the screen. The two elements that make Baby Driver so entertaining and watchable are the choreography and the dialogue. He has created, in essence, a musical, with the action as the lead. All the players are syncing their movements to the music, from the steps they take, to the car chases, to the gun battles, and each song is perfectly chosen. The dialogue combines both classic heist banter, and idiosyncratic lines that inform character development. For those who love classic films, there are lots of references to find, yet another reason for repeat viewing.
As to the cast, Elgort and James have a sweetness together, and an undeniable chemistry. As the star, Elgort puts his background in dance to great use. James, in particular, seems destined to become a chameleon actor who will morph with the roles she plays, rather than being relegated to a string of bland, predictable roles. Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx all add immeasurably to the proceedings, as they weave in and out of the action, spouting quotes that will live long past the end credits as part of this destined-to-be-cult-classic film. A shout-out has to go to co-star C.J. Jones, the hearing impaired comedian who infuses every moment of interaction between Joseph and his foster son with love and compassion.
When I spoke to director Edgar Wright, he talked about Baby Driver being a long time coming, one which had been rolling around in his head taking shape for years. When the movie Drive was releasing, he fretted that Baby Driver would no longer be fresh, only to discover his was still a completely different take on the genre. He knows his way around car chase films, as exampled by his guest curation for his favorites for the British FiIm Institute in June called Car Car Land. He is also a big fan of classic Hollywood musicals and music in general, it being an important element of all his films. Putting the two together, like a Busby Berkeley-Bullitt mashup, became his lifelong dream. He says, though not direct homages, there are elements of Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singing in the Rain, among others. Don’t worry, the choreography is integrated so seamlessly you’d never notice unless you were paying attention. It’s all part of the rhythm of the film.
I’m not usually a fan of heist flicks, and even less do I appreciate most heist-gone-bad flicks. Baby Driver is one of a few exceptions. Whether Baby Driver ends in disaster, or with the young lovers escaping down a deserted patch of route 66, the fun is in getting there.