Edgar Wright is a very good director. Shaun Of The Dead is a deeply amusing and affecting dramedy. Hot Fuzz is a satirical masterpiece. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a rip-roaring delight. Even The World’s End, that I personally disliked more than liked, was still directed by a man who, perhaps more than anyone else, understands the balance between comedy, drama and action in terms of script and visual direction. Unfortunately booted from Ant-Man – still a great movie, but could have been spectacular – Wright since turned to a very different vehicle for his talents, moving away from the British realm of comedy and into the very American. A truly all-star cast to work with here, and a premise to intrigue: is Edgar Wright back on the good path, or is he in steep decline?
Suffering from tinnitus after a childhood car accident, Baby (Ansel Elgort) drowns out the ringing with a constant medley of classic hits. It helps with his primary employment: being the getaway driver for heist planner Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his numerous hold-up operations. Embedded with a motley collection of criminals – crazy Bats (Jamie Foxx), hedonistic Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), reckless Buddy (Jon Hamm) – Baby dreams of getting out from under Doc’s sway and making off with Debora (Lily James), the singing waitress at his favourite diner, but there’s always one more score to accomplish.
After Wonder Woman, here is the next big stand-out hit of the 2017 summer season. For Edgar Wright, in my eyes, Baby Driver is a stunning and much welcome return to form, a film that encapsulates some of the best aspects of long-form film-making in its easy mixture of themes, genres and production specifics. It’s an utter delight from start to finish.
For once, it won’t be plot or narrative that I start off with. Instead, let’s talk about visual direction and cinematography primarily, because this is as film where Edgar Wrght – with The Matrix’s Bill Pope- demonstrates his skill in this craft so expertly he may need to be declared films’ primary genius on the subject. Baby Driver is a symphony and ballet rolled into one: a near perfect demonstration of the merging of picture, movement and sound, in every other scene. It’s not just the numerous one-shotters, all pulled off amazingly well, it’s everything: when Baby dances around his apartment while having a sign-language conversation with his elderly guardian; when he goes back and forth with Debora in the diner; and, of course, whenever he drives.
The action scenes in Baby Driver are, and I may end up using this word a lot, masterpieces, a great blend of tight cuts, interior and exterior shots and thumping excitement in every gun shot, banged fender and oh-so-close moment when it appears Baby might just be about to lose control (but will he ever?). Unconstrained by the primary purpose of the film being to make people laugh, Wright is free to showcase his understanding of how to shoot action brilliantly, raising and lowering the tension with ease, keeping things inventive at every turn and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
And, as noted by nearly everyone else, a large element of this is the films soundtrack. Comparisons have been made to James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise, but that’s a negative one in my opinion. With a few exceptions, and especially in Vol 2, Guardians uses it’s 70’s and 80’s contingent of classics for transitionary and establishing shots and montages, of little consequence save for stoking the audiences nostalgia. Wright uses the music to actually enhance scenes: not just to set mood, but to make your heart beat along to whatever is happening on screen. A few wonderful examples may suffice: Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” as Baby goes about his routine of buying coffee for the heist members, a great introduction to the character outside of a car; a whimsical yet premature departure from the criminal world to The Commodores’ “Easy”; and, my favourite, a thumping frenetic foot chase late on to the strains of Focus’ “Hocus Pocus”. Wright just gets music and how it can be applied, in a way that Gunn just doesn’t. Gunn picks songs. Wright fits them.
And it isn’t just that music makes the film, improves everything that it plays over. Music is at the heart of the film, through the main character who suffers from such a debilitating affliction. Baby needs music both to drown out the ringing, and to make himself effective: it’s the spinach to his Popeye, his source of strength that he’s lost without. He’s a different breed of superhero, but he’s one nonetheless, and music is what drives him. Music is how he connects to his guardian, to Debora and even to the criminals he is forced to buddy up with. There’s something really fascinating in all that, and in all of the conversations over music that Baby Driver offers, whether it is of the playfully flirty kind or the more dangerous back-and-forths with Bats and Buddy.
The general narrative of Baby Driver is nothing especially noteworthy or revelatory, but it is entertaining and engaging at every turn. We are introduced to Baby the ice-cool yet quirky getaway driver, who never fails to shake the police or confirm the score. But then we see someone different, especially from Ryan Gosling’s Driver, to whom plenty of comparisons have been made: this is a sweet guy, who dotes on his elderly guardian, stumbles in his conversations with Debora and is caught up in a criminal organisation he really doesn’t want to be caught up in. This is all very important, and especially for Wright: One of the biggest problems with The World’s End was that its main character was a thoroughly unlikeable cretin that I didn’t care about in terms of his successes and failures. Baby might be a criminal but he’s one with a shining heart of gold, and you want him to succeed in his primary goal: getting out of the business, once and for all.
We must also give kudos to Elgort’s performance as a big part of what makes Baby Driver great. Baby could easily come off as weird or unlikeable wing to the generally “off” nature of the character. It really is no surprise that so many others take an automatic dislike of him. But Elgort, in every half-smile, desperate look and pitch-perfect shuffle, makes something more of Baby, an inherently relatable guy just caught up in events much too big for him.
The supporting cast are a somewhat mixed bag, victims perhaps more of some of the films only real flaws than poor performances. Spacey is largely channelling Frank Underwood – something he does a lot nowadays, unfortunately – but is quietly menacing as Doc, though he suffers from a late in the game direction change. Foxx is better, playing a holdup artist who reeks of genuine danger and ruthlessness with every manic syllable he utters. Hamm and Gonzalez play a suitably demented couple, though again they suffer from some late in the game narrative choices, where the lines between ally and enemy get blurred. More of an obvious weak point is James, whose character is generally quite weak and subordinate. Wright doesn’t have the best track record with female characters, who tend to be of the token variety in otherwise male-dominated stories in his filmography, and while James does her best, Debora is largely just a prize at the end of the race.
The principals make the overall product better than the sum of its parts certainly. Baby Driver is a sometimes slick, sometimes violent crime story, and part of the fun is getting this disparate personalities together in a room, in a diner, in a car, and seeing what happens when they bounce off of each other. The usually silent Baby is a suitable audience surrogate for such interactions, and Wright’s script does the rest, in every snarl, insult and jab, alongside the usual smooth criminal stuff. The multitude of potential obstacles for Baby’s quest for freedom does mean that the last act has a certain haphazardness to it, as the title of “film’s primary villain” bounces around between a few different candidates. In much the same way that The World’s End disintegrated into nonsense in its closing stages, Baby Driver does stutter as Wright confronts the end of his “life of crime” tale, unable to restrain himself from an elongated ending and epilogue that the film doesn’t really require, caught between the idealistic and the pragmatic.
But, in much the same way that George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has the deficiencies in its narrative and character effectively negated with the strength of its other aspects, Baby Driver rises triumphantly above any of its apparent shortcomings. It’s a breath-taking and nerve-wracking tour de force, with a strong central performance, excellent visuals, thumping action scenes and a soundtrack that improves and enhances everything that it touches. It’s one of the most fun and inventive films of 2017, while having enough of a brain that you don’t feel as if you’re watching a Bay-esque parade of dunces. A wonderful film, and a great way to continue the summer. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Tri-Star Pictures).