It’s an odd sensation being reminded of something you never quite knew to begin with. That, however, is what Baby Driver does. It’s an encapsulation of why people love movies, dropping the bulk and excess of modern Hollywood and filling it all back in with passion and panache. Edgar Wright has given us an undiluted shot of adoration for the moving form.
Most indicative of this is the simple and unencumbered story. It sets up three basic but bold pillars, like primary colors streaking up into the sky. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, setting up the heist component. But he soon meets Debora (Lily James), revving up a love story alongside the action. Then the antagonistic side rears up with everyone Baby reluctantly works with including mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) and trigger-happy Bats (Jamie Foxx).
Writer/director Wright then begins to blend them all together so that you don’t end up with a mess of brown but a perfect and prismatic fireworks display. Each anchor gets its due until it all necessarily culminates in a pulse-pounding and heart-rending climax. Nothing is taken for granted as every component dutifully marches towards the inevitable turn.
At the core of it, though, is Wright’s continued—nigh unstoppable—ability to craft whole and outlandish but grounded and real characters. Baby, for instance, is a stoic and silent babyfaced driver, his whole life pushed in this singular direction after an incident that wrapped up all his quirks and emotions and dependencies into half a second. His life is one of fast cars, classic tunes, and remixes, and it’s all for a reason.
And even when he doesn’t flesh out a character, it’s for a reason, though they still are as memorable as any other. Doc is a great example where he tantalizingly vacillates between friend and enemy. We never find out much about why he does what he does, but the how of what he does is captivating. As much credit goes to Spacey as to Wright, though. Doc’s words read like a 1920s newsie, but Spacey gives it an almost jazz-like bounce and rhythmic delivery.
When the villainous throne is usurped several times throughout the movie, it makes sense why Doc would take such a slot-filling role. As Foxx’s impeccably cruel and unhinged Bats crashes his chaotic evil headlong into Baby’s lawful good (forced into something dangerous), we find a beautiful catharsis and resolution before fellow heistman Buddy (Jon Hamm) slips into the crown. And a crown it is, as he emerges as not just devilish but Satan himself, transforming himself multiple times throughout the story until he is as terrifying as he’s ever been.
It’s interesting that so much of what succeeds in this movie is at the sole hands of Wright. He was famously booted from Marvel’s Ant-Man, the MCU’s apparent heist entry with a shtick that seemed all the way up Wright’s alley. But when Marvel decided they didn’t want an “Edgar Wright movie,” he went on to make this movie, which, aside from his very first and impossible-to-find film A Fistful of Fingers, is the only purely written and directed film by him.
Take that consideration into the opening action sequence all the way through to the first act break and you’ll find something of a measured response to that exit. It’s full of visual gags you might find in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and in analytical pieces by Every Frame a Painting. It even plays out more like a music video than a traditional movie, infusing Wright’s James Gunn-like penchant for musicality with his own Shaun of the Dead long take callback.
Just look at the 30-track, nearly two-hour soundtrack. (Wright even had Kid Koala build the analog mixing gear Baby uses for real and then compose all those remixes that punctuate Baby’s life.) Both the dramatic and explosive scenes of the movie rarely don’t align with the constantly underpinning needle drops with gear shifts and gunshots hit like cymbal crashes and snare rolls. It’s an exceptionally Wrightian and mind-bending hopping between non-diegetic and in-world sound. It immerses you further in the shoes of Baby, especially when it all drops out and that same uneasy tinnitus whine invades your ears.
It wouldn’t be that hard to be attracted to Baby’s point of view anyway given Elgort’s performance. As good as everyone else is (seriously, Foxx, Hamm, Spacey, James, and Eiza González are goddamn prodigious), Elgort is the dictionary definition of charisma. The very first moment the camera opens on him and he starts lip-syncing is the first moment you latch onto him and don’t let go. His drama chops are obvious from The Fault in Our Stars, but now we see his comedy come through as well as his ability to play an action-oriented lead, his lean frame making calibrated movements that rival the perennially running Tom Cruise.
Whether on foot or in a car, the action of Baby Driver is tremendous. It moves with the ferocity but clarity of a man who has dreamed of directing a car chase all his life. (And based on his series of Top 5 lists with Birth.Movies.Death., he has.) It even feels a bit antithetical to the modern blockbuster, pushing in on the actor’s face as the action unfurls (with Wright himself strapped to the front of the car) rather than using CGI to paint a silhouette into a digital truck falling off a cliff.
While CGI itself is not indicative of quality or dedication or even competency, the reasons why Wright went Death Proof to see Elgort and Hamm ride down an Atlanta freeway say just as much for his understanding of cinema as the movie itself does for the results of that knowledge. What Wonder Woman is doing for superhero movies is what Baby Driver will do for summer blockbusters. It’s proof that you can be earnestly nerdy about the things you love and still find success at the end. And in this case, success is a heist-based jukebox musical that you won’t be able to stop thinking about every time you hit the open road.
Final Score: 9 out of 10