BY COREY KOEPPER
★★★★ 1/2 (OUT OF 5)
RATED R 1H 53 MIN
JUNE 28 2017 ACTION
DIRECTOR: EDGAR WRIGHT
Remember when summer movies used to be about engaging instead of zoning out? A group of people in an air-conditioned theater laughing, gasping, or tapping their feet all at once? Seems preferable to staring zombie-like at Transformers 15, as one mindless, soulless scene of robot-clashing transitions into another, the next as chaotically indistinguishable from the one before.
Leave it to Edgar Wright to cure the mid-summer franchise blues with Baby Driver, a romantic, musical action-comedy determined to engage you with every device in its cinematic arsenal, including an A+ soundtrack, sonically enhancing car chase scenes that are as thrilling in the moment as they are memorable in the canon of action films Wright gleefully remixes.
Wright has always been a filmmaker who is undoubtedly successful at merging his cinematic influences into something unique of his own design. The Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World were all great, but Baby Driver marks somewhat of a progressive turn.
Here, Wright (credited with his first solo screenplay) borrows primarily from ’90s pulp action films (e.g. Heat, Reservoir Dogs) and Walter Hill’s 1978 classic The Driver, in service of an absolutely insane vision that somehow fluidly unfolds like a pop culture symphony. It’s also endearing and old-fashioned, á la La La Land, and certainly invokes the self-aware Guardians of the Galaxy-esque nostalgia we’re used to seeing in blockbusters these days, but Wright’s movie is such a fine-tuned machine that it feels considerably more fresh and exciting.Baby Driver is the film to see this summer if you want that rare type of camaraderie with your fellow audience members, to feel like you are collectively experiencing grand entertainment, without sacrificing substance. The novel tool that Wright uses to engage us is the same one that allows his protagonist to engage with his environment – music. Baby, played by The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort in a star-making performance, needs music to connect with his surroundings. Following a childhood accident that has left him with chronic tinnitus, the constant ringing in his ears has led Baby toward incorporating music into the soundscape of his daily life – and particularly in his current line of work, as a young Atlanta getaway driver for high-profile heists. He’s always plugged in, and so are we.
The song that Baby synchronizes to his getaway in the film’s opening scene, “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, provides an immediate burst of imagination, a brilliant exploration of the unique ways in which an action sequence can be cut to music. And that’s only the beginning.
The opening credits sequence, featuring “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob & Earl, follows Baby on a coffee run in a continuous shot, as sounds and noises in his natural range of hearing (loud construction workers passing, car horns, etc.) synergistically combine with the music. The same concept works exceptionally well in almost every scene, whether Baby’s flipping through a stack of dirty money, slamming on the breaks, or making a gear shift as he donuts across the freeway.
Crime boss Doc, played by the terrifically dry and sly Kevin Spacey, has caught Baby in a perpetual loop of jobs he wishes he could steer away from. But hey, if you want to keep your legs in this business, it might be best to just drive. Baby, quiet and reserved but a monster behind the wheel, is largely scoffed at or ignored by his fellow criminal team members, which eventually come to include the somewhat unhinged Bats (Jamie Foxx), along with Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his romantic partner-in-crime Darling (Eliza Gonzalez).The casting is pitch perfect. Every character is fun to watch, and the supporting players give it 150%. You never doubt that each actor is perfect for their role in Wright’s meticulous chaos, forming a mosaic of over-the-top personalities that complement the director’s stylized, almost fairy tale-like narrative style. Action and laughs are balanced exceptionally well, while the overall package is consistently fun (and will likely have high replay value).
Wright’s fantastical tone is most evident in the romantic core of the film, in which Baby falls for diner waitress Debora (Lily James). Sucked into a criminal enterprise, but with a kind heart and conscience that is immediately recognized by Debora, Ansel Elgort gives us one of the most likable heroes of the year. James, who is absolutely charming, forms a picture of classical, cinematic romance with Elgort that might seem annoyingly contrived in lesser hands than Wright’s, who clearly understands the genre archetypes he is mimicking and explores them with passion and a great deal of empathy.Unveiling any more of Baby Driver‘s plot would be pointless, but I can’t help but note that you’re unlikely to see a better scene propelled by Queen’s “Brighton Rock.” Kudos to the technical prowess of cinematographer Bill Pope and editors Jonathon Amos and Paul Machliss, who enact Wright’s stunts and vision so seamlessly that it might just blow your mind.
Edgar Wright ultimately remixes the aesthetic textures and story elements he adores into something quite special, much as Baby records conversations from his life and remixes them into quirky beats that he records on cassette. As music is a means of both connection to life and escape for Baby, such is cinema to Wright.
Baby Driver is the rare summer blockbuster where its director truly is the film’s storyteller, and he drives this thing with confidence, gusto, and the willingness to be a bold and unique voice that cuts through a season of noise. Most movies this summer will probably make your ears ring afterward, but Baby Driver’s tune will reverberate in your heart and mind. So take the drive, and safely trust that your friends will be on the same wavelength. Your eyes won’t drift from the road once.