The year is 2017 and by now it’s a hackneyed cliché to compare action movie violence to choreographed musical dance numbers. But it’s one thing to occasionally swoop your gun-laden arms around you in majestic slow-motion while pigeons freak out and flee the premises, and it’s another to actually choreograph an entire car chase movie to a mixtape made from a particularly eclectic Morning Becomes Eclectic.
Edgar Wright understands the difference. His new film Baby Driver is borne from the hardboiled heist flicks of Michael Mann, the exaggerated realities of Walter Hill, and the colorful toe-tappings of a Stanley Donen flick. You’ve probably seen the plot of this heist movie before – one last job and he’s out, etc. – but the execution is something else, something experimental and infectious, and something that’s going to sell a heck of a lot of soundtracks.
Ansel Elgort is Baby (yes, that’s his real name). He’s a cherubic wheelman who owes a ton of money to Doc, a criminal mastermind played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has been working off his debt as a getaway driver for one elaborate heist after another, staying far away from the violence and gliding through the vehicular obstacles in a series of impressive stunts. When we first meet him, Baby seems to represent the typical “badass” Hollywood fantasy: young, handsome, great at his job, and with a job that most of the audience will probably think is pretty cool.
Baby needs tunes, though. He suffers from serious tinnitus and drowns out the ringing in his ears with loudly cranked music from his many, many iPods. The sound of his silence is pop hits, b-sides and obscure oddities. Have you ever driven down the street listening to a song and noticed that the world around you seems to have keyed into the rhythm, and you felt for a brief moment like you were the subject of a music video? That’s practically every second of Baby’s life, to the extent that he can’t even do his dangerous, every-moment-counts job unless exactly the right song is accompanying him.
Edgar Wright takes this little quirk, the sort of character trait most writers would toss into a script and then promptly forget about (see also: Fantastic Four), and he builds an entire world around it. When Baby is happy the seedy graffiti matches the lyrics of his jams. When he’s in love with a personable waitress (Lily James), the clothing that spins behind them at a laundromat is colorful and bouncing. It looks as though the costumes from La La Land couldn’t help themselves and started two-stepping right in the middle of their baths along with T. Rex’s “Debora.” When an illegal arms deal goes south the bullets hit flesh to the tune of “Tequila,” turning an otherwise fun time into a nightmare.
Because the thing is, Baby isn’t a hero. He isn’t a wish-fulfillment character. He doesn’t realize (until it’s too late) that just because he isn’t hardened yet, doesn’t mean he’s not a criminal. Soon enough the violence of Doc’s heists – enacted by unstable cronies played by Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Eiza González – is getting completely out of control. There’s no moral high ground for Baby to take. Baby chose this path and Baby’s going to have to drive straight to the end of it. Fortunately he’s a damn good driver and he’s got one hell of a playlist selected.
Baby Driver is, again, in many ways a conventional heist movie, full of all the old heist movie chestnuts. But it’s also a music movie, an ambitious and unusual one. When these two seemingly disparate elements work together they create a strange alchemy. At its best Baby Driver is one of the most distinctive and exciting movies of its ilk, with absolutely phenomenal action and a beat you can dance to. At its worst the film merely has to spin its wheels for a bit so the plot can go through the familiar motions (mistrust, revenge, etc.), and even then it’s only a matter of time before Baby starts driving again. Boy, that Baby can drive.
Whereas films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz found a fresh, beating heart inside the milieu of genres that’s been done to death, Baby Driver leaves the ticker of the heist and car chase movies alone and takes a defibrillator to the overall style. Maybe Edgar Wright’s film could have had more emotional impact if Baby’s character arc didn’t feel so conventional. Then again, maybe Wright’s style is so broadly experimental that audiences will need some tried-and-true storytelling landmarks just to orient themsevles.
But maybe – and this is my personal theory – Baby Driver is exactly what it needs to be. This movie is exhilarating, a supercool and ultragroovy heist flick that uses music the way the rest of us use air, and an instant candidate for one of the best car chase movies ever. What more could you possibly ask for? (Other than the soundtrack, of course.)
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Top Photo: Sony Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.