Whether you first encountered his work with the zom-rom-com Shaun Of The Dead or his pop culture infused ode to 20-something listlessness Spaced, chances are you fell in love with writer/director Edgar Wright instantly. Like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith before him, Wright always felt like one of us. He’s a movie drunk nerd blessed with the talents of the cult filmmakers who inspired him (and who he quotes endlessly in his work). Wright has been cranking out genre nerd cult movies for over a decade now, and while he’s yet to deliver a massive hit, he hasn’t made a project yet that didn’t develop a cult fan base. Wright’s latest Baby Driver feels like a conscious attempt to make something more mainstream, a car-chase heist flick with the pop thrills of Fast And Furious nonsense but executed with the candy coloured choreography of a musical. It’s a film almost impossible to hate and for those who already count themselves amongst the Edgar Wright faithful, it’s something to be cherished.
Ansel Elgort stars as that Baby Driver from the title. His name is Baby. He is a driver. Specifically, he’s a driver-for-hire for heists, and likes to pump music from one of his various iPods into his skull to ensure that his driving is always executed with a dancer’s grace at top speed (it also drown out a ringing in his ears left over from a childhood tragedy, but that’s all backstory). He works for Kevin Spacey’s slimy crime boss, whom he owes a debt. Spacey considers him a good luck charm, shoving him into various missions with a variety of colourful criminals like Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez’s psycho lovebirds, or Jamie Foxx’s tattooed nut-job. Everything always works like a charm though, and when Baby isn’t dancing behind the wheel, he turns daily activities into a dance of their own set to his perpetual iPod soundtrack. Things get tricky when Baby falls hard for a diner waitress played by Lily James. Suddenly, he’s got something that complicates his routine, and even though the guy has retirement in sight, it’s clear that one of those tragic “last jobs” that plagues most heist movies is on the way.
First and foremost, Baby Driver is just a pure joy to watch from start to finish. As usual, Edgar Wright as meticulously constructed this beauty of an action flick to play for maximum impact. For passive viewers, that means a parade of blinding colours, lovable characters, and pulse-pounding action set pieces until the credits roll. For more active viewers, it’s something more complicated and delightful. Wright is one of the most self-conscious filmmakers around and this movie is filled with delightfully self-aware cinematic construction for those who care. There are little in-jokes in every detail. Every movement of the actors is carefully choreographed to the soundtrack and visuals to make the whole thing play like an extended dance sequence. Cars fly through frames in time with the music. Even gunshots tend to match the beat. It must have been painfully difficult to make a flick this meticulously choreographed on every level, and while you don’t need to notice all of the filmmaking games of Wright to enjoy Baby Driver, it sure makes it all that much more impressive.
While Baby Driver is one of Wright’s most stylistically accomplished productions, it also comes from one of his most simple screenplays. That’s deliberate for a few reasons. One the one hand, it’s meant to be his most mainstream effort that’ll work for more than just attentive movie nerds. On the other hand, it’s yet another homage to Walter Hill’s underrated minimalist 70s chase flick The Driver (which was also a major influence on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive). The characters are all archetypes rather than humans. That’s good news for the supporting cast who create gloriously goofy cartoons — in particular, Spacey’s slithering slime ball is one of his most purely enjoyable characters in years, and Jon Hamm’s love-drunk psycho is probably his best film performance to date. It’s unfortunately bad news for the protagonists. Ansel Elgort and Lily James just don’t have much to do beyond look attractive and nail Wright’s action dance steps. It doesn’t matter when the film is running on pure action movie adrenaline, but it’s a problem in the romantic finale that doesn’t earn enough audience endearment for the intended emotional impact. Oh well, Wright has never been great at endings, and even if this thing peters out in the finale, the ridiculously entertaining ride that gets there is worth it.
It’ll be interesting to see how Baby Driver registers at the box office. The candy coloured action choreography certainly tingles the pleasure centers enough to be a worthy hit. Yet, at the same time, to really enjoy what the flick accomplishes requires movie geek interaction with the filmmaking that mainstream audiences don’t tend to care about. That’s been Edgar Wright’s biggest hurdle as a filmmaker from the beginning. He always makes movies within populist genres, but shoots them with so much self-conscious movie nerdery that they tend to play best as cult oddities. Granted, Quentin Tarantino never had a problem translating his own movie-drunk obsessions into mainstream hits. At some point, Wright will likely find a similar sweet spot. Hopefully, Baby Driver is a step in that direction. However, chances are it’ll be this summer’s The Nice Guys: a mainstream genre flick that was sadly a little too clever to be a hit. At least cinephiles and action movie obsessives have a new cult classic to ogle on the big screen this summer. These sorts of movies come along far too infrequently, and few do them as well as the great nerdy genius that is Edgar Wright.