Review: Baby Driver

Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx
Distributed by: TriStar Pictures

It feels like it’s been an eternity since we’ve seen or heard from director Edgar Wright. The mastermind behind the Cornetto Trilogy and the film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was last attached to direct and write Marvel’s Ant-Man film, but a rather highly publicized fall-out saw him removed from the project (although elements of his original script remained in the final version). Thankfully, he wasn’t slouching around in the immediate aftermath, as he got right back to work on another project: an original film project called Baby Driver that is now gracing the silver screen. Given that Wright’s film streak so far has been nothing but home runs, expectations for this film are naturally very high. How do things play out?

The film follows the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort), a savant of sorts who acts as a magnificently skilled getaway driver for an underground Atlanta crime syndicate led by Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a rotating team of robbers (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales, and Jon Beranthal). Baby’s skills are accentuated further by love of music, as he’s always listening to something during jobs to drown out his permanent tinnitus from a childhood car accident that killed his parents. Despite his unique talents behind the wheel, Baby’s only working to pay off a debt to Doc, thinking that he’s finally free of this life after completing his latest mission. Unfortunately, Doc tries to recruit him in for one last job, but Baby’s hesitant to do so out of fear for the safety of his guardian as well as his newfound love interest (Lily James). Now, Baby must do his best to escape the criminal world for good while protecting those he cares for the most.

The broad strokes of the film more or less come across as a musical version of the Fast & Furious franchise, although it definitely has a more distinct style and flair to it than that series. The first 5-10 minutes of the film give an incredibly strong indicator of the film’s unique action/musical sensibilities. Baby makes his getaway from a robbery with the police on his tail, using all kinds of clever maneuvers to lose their track and trick his pursuers to run over their own traps, even managing to escape through blending in with several similarly colored vehicles, all set to the alternative rock tune “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The following opening credits scene reinforces the tone even further, with an extended sequence of Baby bouncing around town in the most stylish manner possible set to the R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob & Earl, with the direction synching every lyric of the song to his actions, to the point where choices quotes from the song even appear as graffiti in the background of most shots.

The music is just as much the star of the film as its central cast. Baby Driver has a fantastic and varied selection of R&B, rock, funk, and soul jams from all eras, and their integration into scenes and the overall story is so spot-on that it easily gives the Guardians of the Galaxy series a run for its money. Just as a quick sampling, the film features cuts from The Beach Boys, Dave Brubeck, Beck, Simon and Garfunkel (a song from which the movie draws its name), Barry White, and so much more. Wright shows all throughout the film that he knows how to direct scenes to music, as nothing about the film would be the same if each and every music cue was swapped out for something more generic or stock. One of the best examples of this is in the first heist Baby goes on with Jamie Foxx and a couple of other robbers. The getaway is a tense and exciting scene punctuated with The Damned’s punk classic “Neat Neat Neat”, and the scene even makes a funny joke about how Baby needs the entire scene to be set perfectly to the tune. The driving energy of the piece makes the stunts and crazy car tricks that much more enjoyable, including how Baby plays around with random environmental objects like crashing into empty carts in order to throw off the police. There’s another great action set piece in which the heist team ends up butchering a mission due to Foxx’s paranoia, and the backing track is none other than that ever-so-iconic of mambo classics: TEQUILA! Every aspect of the shootout works perfectly to the music, even to the point where the gunfire is edited to line up and be accentuated by the horns of the original tune. Julian Slater and Michael Clark are credited as the sound designer and sound mixer respectively, and their work definitely shines through in this and many other scenes in the film, as the aural punctuation of important action beats is second-to-none. I sincerely hope these two and their respective teams end up receiving big industry awards for their work here, as it’s simply magnificent.

While the soundtrack is the front-and-center star of the film and it permeates through every inch of the film (included a rather choice usage of Queen that won’t go spoiled here), the actual main cast brings just as much flair and star power to the proceedings. Naturally, Kevin Spacey is his usual fun brand of sociopathic menacing mastermind, Foxx brings his usual charismatic flair to being an impatient robber who can’t deal with others’ crap, and both Jon Bernthal and Jon Hamm get in some great intimidating performances themselves. However, the biggest surprise of the cast is Ansel Elgort as the titular lead. While he’s no stranger to action films given his prominent role in the Divergent series, Baby Driver really gives him a role that allows him to exercise some excellent leading-man chops. The style and setting of the film plays a big part in this, as his character exudes a stylish “too cool for the room” aesthetic that makes perfect sense against the old-school backdrop of classic R&B/rock tunes, retro car models, old-timey dinners, etc. He’s a natural fit for this role, and there’s even some sincerely charming moments in the scenes between both his guardian and his love interest Debora. He’s got the exact kind of swagger that would be right at home with a 1960’s leading man, and it’s surprisingly great to finally see him in a movie that’s actually great.

If it’s not clear by now, I absolutely loved this movie. I could go on further, but this is something that really needs to be seen in theaters. Edgar Wright once again brings his flair for unique visual direction, humorously clever dialogue, and great action scenes, boasting what will easily be the single best film soundtrack of the year. All of this, combined with an all-star cast with great chemistry between each other, makes for one of the best action films of 2017 as well as what is currently my favorite movie of the year. Do not miss it.

Verdict: See it opening night. See it twice in theaters. Buy the soundtrack. Give Edgar Wright all of your money.

[Note: I attended an advanced screening of the film hosted near the end of April.]

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