When Edgar Wright left the set of Ant-Man due to those pesky “creative differences” it was a bittersweet feeling for film and comic nerds alike. On the one hand we were now going to get a watered down version of a movie which Wright had been working on for ages, but on the other hand, a beloved yet idiosyncratic filmmaker was now free from being absorbed into the franchise machine. So instead of falling down the wormhole of Ant-Man, An2-Man, Ant-3an, and Ant-Man: Origins, Wright instead brings us Baby Driver. Half love-letter to the car chase films of yore, half music video, and half screwball comedy, Baby Driver is more movie than most movies can hold, and it all fits perfectly.
In fact, this is Edgar Wright at not just his most technically proficient, but at his most subdued. I mean this in a good way. Much in the way that Gone Girl is a far cry from Fight Club in terms of brash, omnipresent direction, but is still undeniably from the same filmmaker, Baby Driver shows evidence that Wright has trimmed the shaggy dog-hairs of his earlier work and delivered something much more streamlined and just as impressive. Note that Baby Driver isn’t my favorite Wright film, but it’s probably his best.
Baby is a wheel man. He was in a terrible car accident as a child and it left him with a permanent ring in his ear. He tunes this out by donning headphones and a playlist pretty much all of the time. His boss, Doc, uses Baby because his intuition as a getaway driver is unmatched. His co-workers, always a merry band of robbers (Doc never uses the same team twice), often brush up against him because they see him as a too-cool-for-school Millennial. Baby owes a debt to Doc, but he’s almost paid up — almost square. “One last job” should do the trick. After that, Baby wants to take his girl, his money, and then hit the open road.
Initially, I shared in the supporting characters’ reticence toward Baby. Based on the promotional materials, he came off as just that: too cool for school and too young to have earned it. His presumed quiet confidence gave me pause. I feared that he’d simply be a hip image standing in for a fully conceived character. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right off the bat, Baby is someone to root for. While he does have a degree of aloofness, it’s never one borne from unearned ego. Baby is a fantastic driver and a damned professional about it, but he’s also fun to hang out with. He cracks jokes, dances his way through his day-to-day, and he always makes it home in time to hang out with and tend to his aging, deaf caretaker.
In a world where headphones and iPods make an omnipresent soundtrack a reality, Wright heightens this conceit by giving the film an almost entirely unbroken musical backdrop which is matched to the intricately choreographed visuals. As hard as it is to believe, I’d say about 90 percent of Baby Driver is set to a tempo, both in editing and action. Every gun shot, trunk pop, engine rev, wink, blink, and nod hits a beat. If the song has lyrics, you can bet that they’re visible on screen. None of this is ostentatious, mind you — it’s only when the music stops that we ever realize the trick being pulled — and all of it makes for a highly active viewing experience.
There’s so much going on, in fact, that I don’t feel right about offering a proper appraisal after just one viewing. Not that the film is cryptic or overly dense, just that the rewatch value is so insanely high that I’m sure there are plenty of nuances I either laughed or gasped over, or simply didn’t know to look for. This goes for every single Edgar Wright film. His kinetic style and breakneck pacing sets his work up for a small failure: when the novelty has to take a back seat (well, shotgun seat) so the film can create a proper narrative, it’s hard not to feel the brakes being pumped. That said, this is a problem that has dissolved with each subsequent viewing of his films. I suspect that it will happen with Baby Driver as well. I suspect also that I will be seeing this again before the end of its theatrical run. The film, simply put, RULES.
I can’t help but feel like Wright has hidden a personal message in his characterization of our hero. Think about it: a proven talent is given a job. The veterans distrust him. The boss, although a fan, is unwilling to give up control of the job. Sounds a lot like the Ant-Man debacle of you ask me. The only difference is that Baby isn’t allowed to cut and run. Not without paying his dues.
A message from Edgar Wright to up-and-coming filmmakers: Read your contract.
And what all-time great movie would be complete without an all-time great cast? Ansel Elgort is primed to explode out of the trappings of YA adaptations. He is about to go mainstream in a big way. As a rule, nobody who isn’t an animated baby should be able to say “my name is Baby” and come off as cool, but he does so effortlessly. At his side we find Debora (Lily James), whose easy charm and elegant disposition makes her an enhancement upon the “girl at my side” trope inherent to car chase films.
The baddies are all excellent. Jon Hamm gets to flex acting muscles so rarely seen outside of Mad Men. Eiza Gonzáles plays the femme fatale who commits crime not just to fuel her cocaine addiction (or “nasal problem” per Doc’s preferred nomenclature), but because she’s just as addicted to the thrill of the job. The two share a wannabe Bonnie and Clyde romance (Darling and Buddy are their names) that crackles with precisely the sort of sordid criminal energy which fuels the tragic concept of “you and me against the world.” Well, tragicomic. These two are as much a parody as they are the real thing (as is par for the Edgar Wright course).
Doc is the best use of Kevin Spacey’s talents I’ve seen in ages. He’s proper, polite, and undoubtedly a little bit crazy. His skewed sense of propriety is undercut only by his aptitude for calmly making threats, and many of the movie’s big laugh lines go to him. Somehow Spacey makes this hardened criminal into a likable character without dipping into the self-awareness that say, Christopher Walken, might have been inclined to do. And perhaps there is no one better at walking the line between terrifying and hilarious than Jamie Foxx. To some degree I suspect that his performance as the aptly named Bats will become somewhat iconic. He certainly has THE line of the movie.
The best part of Baby Driver? The fact that anytime you see a car doing crazy shit, it’s because a real stunt driver is driving a real car while a real camera films it. Everything is real. The heightened aspects have nothing do with artifice. Surely the action beats are unlikely, but they aren’t impossible. I know this because I watched it all really happen. The action is real. The violence has weight. Nothing about Baby Driver – a fiction if there ever was one – feels anything less than genuine, because it is genuine. This is pure filmmaking from a pure filmmaker with a pure vision, drawing from a well of creativity, film fandom, and a deep, abiding love for the craft.
Don’t skip this one.
Whoever makes the next Fast movie, take note: Cars exist. Use ’em.
Baby Driver opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.