‘Baby Driver’ Film Review
Movie magic at its most magnificent
Apparently, it takes a Brit to make a truly entertaining American blockbuster these days. Albeit, a well-established Brit with an impressive resume of classic comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and a distinct visual style that drenches itself in the culture its depicting (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), but a Brit nonetheless. There’s a dearth of great American action directors nowadays and, if you’re not entirely swept away by the superhero genre, Baby Driver will be a breath of fresh air and a window into what made traditional standalone action movies so much fun.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a driver. The first film reference you’ll notice from unabashed cinephile director Edgar Wright is a nod to 2011’s Drive: when asked what he does by waitress and love interest Debora (Lily James), the mostly silent Baby, perpetually wearing earphones, says, ‘I’m a driver’. However, Wright’s film takes a sharp turn from Nicolas Winding Refn’s moody and violent modern western, presenting his hero as a music enthusiast, indulging in a good bit of in-car karaoke, one of many singalongs to a soundtrack that fits its music to the film even better than a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. Tied to a debt he owes Doc (Kevin Spacey) Baby drives around a colourful cast of criminals to high profile heists. There’s the batshit and deranged Bats (Jamie Foxx), calm and cool (unless really pushed) Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his sadistic girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Baby’s just about to complete his last job and square his debt with Doc, but he’s forced into another job until, Baby realises, if he really wants to run away with Debora and listen to all the songs with ‘Baby’ in the title, he’ll have to do something drastic to get out.
Wright understands what makes a popular movie work. In his Cornetto trilogy, co-written with and starring Simon Pegg, the characters always had clear motivations and a need for change, while the stakes were raised with each action set piece until the town was either overrun by zombies, shot to bits or the whole damn world had ended. Wright understands these story beats and genre conventions so well he often parody’s them, but it’s always clear he respected the elements of storytelling. With Baby Driver, Wright isn’t quite parodying as he is resurrecting. As a stoic protagonist formidable behind the wheel, Baby is a vulnerable hero with a weakness (he has tinnitus and uses music to drown it out). The bad guys are colourful and exaggerated yet firmly remain bad guys, and this is in huge part thanks to the captivating performances from Hamm and Foxx, both playing their parts like Bond villains in a comic book. Wright’s dialogue is quick and engaging, whether it’s one of Spacey’s many scenery-chewing monologues or the song title banter between Debora and Baby. Wright knows that, to keep the audience paying attention, your dialogue scenes have to be as engaging as the car chases are.
Infused with blues, jazz, soul and funk music, the film is like some kind of post-musical, in which the songs are integral to the rhythms of the movement but the sound is all diegetic: it’s coming from Baby’s iPod. He uses music sync to up violent and dangerous chase scenes with the sounds of the ‘Harlem Shuffle’, the Commodores and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. This means every time a car horn beeps or a gunshot goes off, the sounds play to the rhythm of the music. It’s a conceit that would only be attempted by a director who knew they could pull it off.
Resurrecting the tropes of Hollywood blockbusters, however, Wright unfortunately sidelines his female characters a little too much, supplying the male characters with the character arcs and the best dialogue, while Debora and Darling are relegated to roles of their male counterparts’ paramours. Given the male-centric Cornetto Trilogy put the women on equal footing with the men, this is one trope I wish Wright had been able to avoid.
Baby Driver is what a fun night out at the cinema used to be: you’re seeing the new film from a great director, you don’t need to have seen previous instalments or read the comics and you’re certainly not expecting it to end somewhere in the middle, so you’ll come back next year. Given the film’s handsome box office returns and the rise of visually distinctive indie-directors, Hollywood might take note and let a few more standalone big-budget movies slip in among the rest. If not, Baby Driver one hell of an interlude.