Baby Driver’s best moments have director Edgar Wright in a thrilling new gear

By Dan Cava

June 27, 2017

There’s a moment in the reality show The Bachelorette that reminded me of Edgar Wright, the filmmaker behind the next heist extravaganza Baby Driver. In a recent episode (which I didn’t watch, or rather which I will never admit to watching) a handsome suitor-contestant sprinkles the word “whaboom!” throughout his conversation with Rachel, this season’s strong, independent object of desire. “Oh…” realizes Rachel aloud after the third whaboom, “you have a thing.”

Wright is a talented writer/director whose idiosyncratic approach veers precariously close to thing. He has his followers, for sure. (Listening to his fans debate the superiority of either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz is a joy untold, and the lamentations over his departure from Marvel’s Ant-Man still echo through corners of the internet.) But for some, myself included, his efforts can be something of a “whaboom”: aggressively filmed male rites of passage disguised as self-conscious genre mashups. Wright’s histrionics often upstage his screenplays, and his careening camerawork and boisterous editing can lay heavily on his stories.

Lily James as Debora and Ansel Elgort as Baby. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Baby Driver is Wright’s best film since Scott Pilgrim vs the World, the 2010 graphic novel adaptation where Wright’s visuals were grounded in the story’s video game structure. As with Scott Pilgrim, Wright once again structures his tale around a good-hearted boy’s desire for a hyper-idealized dream girl. A gifted getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) falls for Deborah (Lilly James), a diner waitress with a Southern accent and a dream to go West. Before Baby can hit the road for good, he needs pay down a debt by driving for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an Atlanta-based crime boss leading a small syndicate of high-stakes thieves.

Doc’s gallery to A-list gangsters is one of Baby Driver’s great pleasures, and an early sign that things are going better for Baby Driver than most of Wright’s previous work. Wright surrounds the angelic Baby with a handful of distinctive devils. Jamie Foxx plays Bats like a nihilistic version of himself which, as it turns out, is pretty terrifying. For Buddy, Jon Hamm packages his considerable man-beauty into a powder keg of compressed romanticism one spark away from rage. Kevin Spacey doesn’t disappear into Doc so much as present him for the audience’s appreciation, but post-House-of-Cards that’s pretty much why you hire Spacey in the first place. It’s a kick to see Frank Underwood pump a shotgun.

Jamie Foxx as Bats and Kevin Spacey as Doc. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

For better or worse, the weakest characters in Baby Driver are the ones closest to its center. Certainly, in an R-rated fairy tale like this one, there’s more than a little room for caricature and archetype. But in a movie full of gleefully two-dimensional characters, Ansel Elgort and Lilly James’ doe-eyed duo are noticeably 1D. Baby is more decorated with character details than developed as a person and the sashaying Deborah of Baby’s occasional daydreams turns out to be about as complex as Deborah herself. The upside here is that it lets the stellar supporting cast and dazzling car-dances shine that much brighter. The downside is waiting for Baby and Deborah to finish batting their eyes at each other so that we can get on with the fireworks.

Wright’s screenplay makes us feel the waiting a touch more than we should. After a zippy Baby-behind-the-wheel prologue, Baby Driver takes its time accelerating into its best stuff which, aside from a cool shot here and a sweet song there, is all in the back half of the film. The movie’s setup is fairly standard “one last job” stuff, and Wright has to reach into his considerable bag of nifty movie tricks (including a lovely one-take waltz through the city streets with Baby on a coffee run) to get us through it. The front end of Baby Driver reminded me Wright’s other non-Scott Pilgrim work, where the gimmick:good-storytelling ratio tilts too far towards the former. Still, like sitting through a decent opener at a concert, it’s not a bad way to hang out in a movie theater. At least there’s some good music.

Jamie Foxx as Bats and Ansel Elgort as Baby. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Once the movie slams into gear at around the halfway point, Baby Driver delivers like nothing else you’re likely to see this summer. Tensions tighten and tires squeal. Grenades and plot points explode with symphonic precision. The bad guys get badder, the fast get furious, and the good-times pacing of the first act rockets into a breathless chain of cause and effect.  

Wright serves up one bravura action sequence after another, all choreographed with astonishing exactness. Baby’s love of music (he wears earbuds for most of the film) seems to fuse with the filmmaking, and the movie becomes an electrifying feat of editorial execution. At times, Baby Driver feels as much like a musical as a mobster movie, with every gunshot and door slam timed to the movie’s soundtrack. Wright pushes and pulls the movie’s throttle, flooring it through the thrills but easing up whenever his rock opera threatens to become a mere wall of noise. Watching the film’s extended finale play out to perfection, we finally see Wright’s gifts find their ultimate equilibrium, with story features and sizzle factors moving together in literal lockstep.

Jon Hamm as Buddy and Eiza González as Darling. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

By the time Baby Driver screeches to a halt, its final laps and phenomenal supporting cast have more than made up for its middle-of-the-road stars and uneven startup.  Baby Driver is never boring and not hard to recommend even when it’s merely doing its thing at the beginning. But in staging such a magnificent set of payoffs for this latest film, Wright seems to have hit a new top speed as a filmmaker. Far from perfect, but also far better at its best than anything else in theaters right now, Baby Driver is a gas.

Star Rating: 4 out 5 stars

Bonus: Baby Driver soundtrack

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