Last night at Austin, TX’s Paramount Theatre, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver premiered to a sold out crowd at SXSW, and it was an ideal way to see the British auteur’s latest film. Like a delightful hybrid between a heist thriller, a romantic comedy, and a musical, Baby Driver is a genre-busting, exhilarating experience from start to finish, as Wright delivers white-knuckle action, memorable characters, and the most inventive diegetic use of a soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s a cool confidence permeating every frame, and an outsized personality that gives Baby Driver early claim to the title of most stylish film of the year. While it has the potential to stall out or run out of gas, Baby Driver never does, thanks to its tremendously charismatic cast, frenetic action, and driving soundtrack.
Baby Driver tells the story of a talented, taciturn young getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), who works for one of the most ruthless crime bosses in Atlanta (Kevin Spacey). A car crash at an early age left Baby with tinnitus, which causes a painful ringing in his ears, so he drowns it out with music, seldom appearing without a pair of earbuds in. Wright deftly uses this conceit to carefully curate a soundtrack of songs to which he cuts the film with surgical precision. With an eclectic selection of songs from the likes of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Blur, T. Rex, Boards of Canada, Dave Brubeck, and many, many more, the soundtrack becomes almost as important as the plot itself. Yet despite Baby’s natural talent behind the wheel and his preternatural ability to boost cars and evade capture, he wants out of the criminal life, a reality that gets thrown into even sharper relief when he meets a saccharine-sweet diner waitress named Debora (Lily James).
It is a chase film driven by music, and also quite literally driven by Elgort’s performance as Baby. In a talented ensemble cast, Elgort shines brightest with an understated, intensely self-assured performance. Yet beneath that tough-but-silent veneer, Baby is bursting with a goofy charm, and you can’t help but root for him to win. But no man is an island; during the jobs he pulls, Baby is paired with a murderer’s row of talented actors playing a murderer’s row of talented murderers. Jon Hamm is a seemingly nice enforcer named Buddy, Eiza Gonzalez is the sultry but ruthless robber Darling, Jamie Foxx is batshit-crazy bandit who “does drugs to support a robbery habit” Bats, and a slew of other memorable minor characters that make you feel like Craigslist started leaking onto the screen (in a good way).
Some have called it Edgar Wright’s Drive or Edgar Wright’s La La Land, and while there is some truth to those comparisons, they feel reductive. While Baby Driver is undoubtedly influenced by the likes of Heat, Reservoir Dogs, and The Driver–so much so that eagle-eyed fans should keep their eyes peeled for a Walter Hill cameo–the film is the singular product of Wright’s creative vision. It is a vision that Wright has been honing in his head for 22 years, which he revealed in a small speech before the screening. (Coincidentally, that is the age of Ansel Elgort too.) Wright first workshopped the concept in the 2003 Mint Royale music video for “Blue Song,” which stars Nick Frost and The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, and feels like a live-action prototype for Baby Driver‘s high-octane opening sequence. With a commitment to practical stunts, deft cinematography, intricately designed action sequences, and a snarky sense of humor, Baby Driver is living proof of the old adage that good things take time.
Yet for all the praise I’ve heaped on Baby Driver, it is not without its faults. While the film is oozing style out of every pore, it sometimes struggles to find deeper meaning amidst its burning rubber, ricocheting bullets, and rapid-fire banter. Much hay has been made about Wright’s influences, and the script is sometimes bogged down by genre conventions that feel contrived to put Baby and his cohorts in harm’s way. In particular, I wish Wright had spent more time developing the romance between Baby and Debora, as it feels underwritten compared to the rest of the film. However, these complaints were but minor speed bumps in the road of what was some of the most fun I’ve had in theaters in ages.
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There has always been something of a secret language to Wright’s work, dating all the way back to shows like Spaced and evolving through his cult-favorite Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End). Wright’s films have always had an instant popular appeal thanks to their snazzy packaging, slick direction, and airtight editing, but the director’s work has seemingly flown under the radar, making fans of his work feel as though they’re in on something cool that the rest of the world hasn’t noticed. With Baby Driver, fans of Edgar Wright’s oeuvre will be on cloud 9 as it distills the essence of the writer-director’s multifarious cinematic and narrative interests into an intensely focused, terrifically fun thrill ride of a movie. Those who are searching for something more profound and existential in Baby Driver‘s DNA may be left disappointed, but this is a ride well worth taking and one that will leave you with a smile on your face (and many, many earworms) long after credits roll.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos
Baby Driver hits theaters August 11, 2017.