Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver starts off with one hell of a chase scene. It’s breathless and chaotic and a total blast. You may find yourself giggling and pumping your fists in the air as the titular get away driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort), improvises his way out of the clutches of five-oh, all set to the music in his earbuds. This scene is followed up with an extended steadicam shot of Baby, on foot, improvising his way down the sidewalk to the corner coffee shop, dancing to his music and barely avoiding running into people. It too is a total blast. To Baby, driving is dancing is music is driving. With the humor, the economy of storytelling and characterization, and the seemingly effortless visual flair, this movie manages to be pure Edgar Wright from frame one, while also being a departure. Unlike the Cornetto Trilogy, which were overt comedies that used genre tropes as a framework, Baby Driver is an unapologetic genre film. Is it funny? Yeah, I don’t think Wright can help but be funny. There’s one particular callback gag near the end that had my audience howling. But make no mistake: this is an action thriller, and a damn good one. And a musical.
Baby is a young getaway driver working for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind who plans out robberies then hires people to execute them. Unlike Doc’s stable of violent thieves, Baby is no hardened criminal. He’s preternaturally good at what he does but he wants nothing to do with this life. Unfortunately, he owes Doc a bunch of cash, and he’s working his butt off to get out of that debt. With his youth and quiet demeanor he’s either the subject of distrust and confusion or head-patting condescension from his colleagues. Baby has tinnitus, you see, and listens to music constantly to drown out the buzzing in his ears. Thanks to that conceit, the soundtrack is nuts.1 Every action sequence is musical number. It’s Busby Berkeley with crumpled fenders.
Instead of Hot Fuzz’s affectionate riffing on action tropes or the CG-augmented stylization of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wright has opted for raw, exhilarating action in the mold of John Frankenheimer or George Miller. The latter is thanked in the credits, and I have to wonder if the Mad Max director had any advice for Wright when it comes to vehicular carnage. If so, it sank in. The chases are immaculately crafted, frenetic but easily followed, and almost entirely practical. Many cars were harmed in the making of this film. While Wright is best known as a comedic director with a strong visual sense, Baby Driver has cemented him as a stellar director of action. While I’d much rather Wright do his own thing, after this film I’d be surprised if large action franchises don’t start courting him. Marvel’s already out of the running there I suppose, but a Fast and/or Furious film helmed by Wright might be transcendent. I’m mostly kidding, as Wright has too strong of a voice to be crammed into something pre-existing like that, but that’s something fun to think about, right?
The story itself is a bit bland in the broad strokes, centered as it is on a sympathetic criminal who wants out of the business so he can be with the girl of his dreams, but Wright has such a deft touch that it doesn’t matter. I like to compare genre conventions to formal poetry. Any given sonnet will have the same form and metre, and often deal with the same themes, but what keeps Shakespeare from being boring as hell is what he does within those structures. On paper, Baby Driver is a typical crime flick, but Wright fills the spaces between rhymes in ways that are totally unique, often skewing our conceptions of villain and hero. Sometimes it does that comedically, but sometimes darkly. There’s a wonderful bit involving the intimate experience of sharing a set of earbuds with a friend which is initially very sweet but is later subverted in a way that is terrifying.
If I have a criticism for Baby Driver it’s that it feels emotionally slight compared to a lot of Wright’s other work. I realize that’s not fair, as any film should be judged on its own terms, but it didn’t touch me on the same level of, say, Shaun of the Dead. Both the Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim deal with moving beyond hangups and established patterns, as well as the idea of maturing and escaping a protracted adolescence.2 Baby Driver is written and crafted with the same level of thought and care as Wright’s other work, but it doesn’t have the same emotional heft for me. This is obviously a personal reaction, so your mileage may vary, but it’s enough of a qualification for me to put it at the bottom of my ranking of his filmography.
That said, Wright’s filmography is bloody awesome, and so is this film. A “weak” Wright film is better than ninety-something percent of what’s out there. Baby Driver is a great filmmaker stretching and revealing new strengths, and I can’t wait to see where Wright goes from here.