Edgar Wright has always used carefully calculated technique to create a sense of effortless whimsy in his films. Whether utilizing crash zooms, persistent soundtrack cues, or cultivated genre tropes to play with, the writer/director has an immediately identifiable style with an exuberant cadence. The auteur’s latest, Baby Driver, is a toe-tapping, pedal-to-the-medal blast that melds his cheerful energy with nods to much more somber heist classics like The Driver and Heat. It’s Wright’s least overtly comedic film, especially in a violent, rambling final act, but the buoyancy remains undeniable.
Momentum builds immediately in an opening chase sequence that belongs in conversations with Bullitt and The French Connection. The getaway driver orchestrating the rousing escape on the crowded Atlanta streets is Baby (Ansel Elgort). He’s indebted to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and shepherds a rotating collection of thieves – including couple Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez) and wildcard Bats (Jamie Foxx) – back to their parking garage hideout after each job. Afflicted with tinnitus after a childhood accident, Baby constantly listens to music on his collection of iPods, drowning out the ringing in his ears and giving Wright a great excuse for the eclectic, propulsive soundtrack to drive the action.
Recognizable tropes – including a “one last job” scenario and a love-at-first-sight meeting with compassionate waitress Debora (Lily James) – are breezily introduced in a way that doesn’t impede the spirited visual and aural storytelling. Still, even for a somewhat heightened fantastical scenario, the romance feels a little underdeveloped. The first encounter and an earbud-sharing dance in a laundromat are lighthearted highlights, but there isn’t quite enough substance to believe Debora’s level of devotion during the climactic mayhem.
Also shaky are the personality transplants undergone by Hamm and Spacey’s characters, who operate to get Baby into and out of jams as needed. Wright, with his first solo screenwriting credit, works a bit too hard to neatly wrap a bow around the plot in a meandering final half-hour – which teases, but, inexplicably, doesn’t include a final car chase – after focusing on the fun for the preceding two acts.
Despite a little gear grinding, Baby Driver impresses with a kinetic rhythm that’s never completely lost in the chaos. Making the bad guys believably bad instead of comedic caricatures adds a sense of realism to the film, especially in the form of Foxx, who feels like a constant threat. That doesn’t prevent him, or the others, from contributing to the almost lyrical dialogue that keeps us engaged and having a good time. The tone is one of enhanced reality, where actions are entertaining yet also have real consequences. Gunshots ring out to the beat of musical accompaniment and they also ravage their targets. It’s an exciting balancing act of style and stakes.
Characters straddle that line as well, Baby burdened by his obligation and scowling through his duties as wheelman, then dancing on coffee runs for criminals and while making lunch for his deaf foster father (CJ Jones). Elgort captures that subtle balance well, never becoming too dark and introspective or too saccharine.
One hobby of Baby’s is recording everyday conversations and then remixing them, using outmoded equipment to create complex arrangements. This isn’t unlike Wright himself, a master at taking the familiar and molding it to fit his informed, frenetic design. Baby Driver is another winning composition.