It’s been a hot minute since Edgar Wright has graced us with his genius. The man responsible for such perfect fare as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright has long been a pioneer of the Trojan horse comedy, trafficking highbrow laughs in with genre trappings. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wright is known for his masterful command of visual language, finding laugh-out loud moments in sharp editing, frame composition, camera operation and a great ear for music that amplifies the deadpan, pun-happy, tongue-in-cheek writing gushing from the page. As the mainstream moves more and more toward studio comedies disemboweled by flat visual palettes that fail to embolden jokes with any discernible directorial decisions, Wright has further articulated and championed his particular filmmaking flavour and the world of cinephiles has been the more fortunate for it. Which takes us to Baby Driver.
Long a prophet of smuggling comedy in genre packages, Wright has explored the horror brand (Shaun of the Dead), the police procedural (Hot Fuzz), the alien invasion film (The World’s End) and even the comic book world (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World). With Baby Driver, Wright sets his eye on the world of car chases and shootouts, strapping a high octane chase thriller to a True Romance-esque love story that literally plays to the beat of its own drum.
Equal parts Fast and Furious, Bonnie and Clyde, Drive and Reservoir Dogs, filtered through the lens of a splashy, upbeat Hollywood musical and blanketed in Motown, 70s folk, British Invasion rock and too many more musical cues to count, Baby Driver is an embarrassment of riches. Some times, too much so. Occasionally the revved up caper gets the better of itself, caught up in Wright’s lurid hyper-reality, high on its own fumes, where style trumps substance. Thankfully, the style is a highway pileup, spilling over into realms thought previously to not exist.
As a somewhat twee love story erupts, Baby Driver uses its minimalist romance – again eliciting whiffs of Drive and True Romance, which too pair doe-eyed blondes with strong, silent, sex-pots – to raise the roof on stakes. With more to lose, the action sequences become more grounded in reality – lives are claimed, threats are leveled, escapes become narrower – and the film’s impossible playfulness takes a dive with it.
As Wright name-checks his way through an even more extensive list of filmic references, spotting his many visual tips of the hat is a game of hide and seek that will surely make re-watching Baby Driver a delightful practice in exercising one’s film history muscles. Described by Wright as a “car movie driven by music”, Baby Driver takes elements of film history’s best car chase thrillers and jacks them up to 11. All without the use of CGI, Baby Driver is the product of a man with a raging hard-on for good old fashion vehicular actioners, made with a hawk’s eye for detail, a surgeon’s precision and visual style coming out the sleeves.
Behind the dash is a man named Baby (Ansel Egort), a little-speaking wheelman working as a getaway driver to pay off his debt to Kevin Spacey’s shady crime lord, Doc. With a collection of different iPods to match the right mood, Baby’s first (and more interesting) love is music. When he’s not singing along to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”, Baby and his handy cassette recorder are capturing conversations to later spin into remixes. We learn that Baby’s obsession with blaring tunes is tied closely to his troubled past, with a chronic case of tinnitus, resulting from a childhood injury, eating away at any chance for silence just as other misgivings have challenged his chance for peace.
That being the case, Baby is incomplete without earbuds. The music cranking into his cranium is the energetic gas in the tank that fuels the film but also provides a musical platform for Wright to riff on in a series of perfectly synchronized action scenes. Gunfire blaze to the beat, with characters playing assault weapons as if they were guitar solos. There’s really nothing to compare the perfectly orchestrated mayhem to, it’s that unique. Like Vasco da Gama finding India, it’s as if Wright has discovered a whole new medium and boy does he have fun with it.
Beyond the righteous directorial style, Baby Driver offers a juicy collection of parts for its killer cast. There’s Jaime Foxx’s “Bats” who is as dangerous as he is delusional; Eliza González and Jon Hamm’s PDA-friendly, AK-47-wielding husband and wife; Jon Bernthal playing to type as a short-fused thug; and Spacey jostling between forgiving father figure and heartless bossman. Wright wears his Tarantino influences on his sleeve with the players, giving each hardened criminal a code name (like “Buddy” or “Darling”) while assuring us that any of them is bad enough to ultimately be the film’s main antagonist. On the flip side, Lily James‘ Debroah is woefully lacking in development, offering little more than a pretty face and willing companion.
From a purely visceral level, Baby Driver is cinematic Viagra, sure to enliven any audience with working eardrums. From its colorful cast of characters to the bouncy soundtrack, Wright has manufactured something that doesn’t easily fit in a box. While he could have easily enough returned to the Cornetto formula to pretty much assured success, Wright’s sixth feature is also his most audacious, trading in his old bag of tricks – those signature Wrightisms – to pursue something daring and novel, even if it doesn’t measure up to his very best work.
CONCLUSION: A splashy one-of-a-kinda action musical, Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ is a rip-roaring hell of a time where the flash admittedly overshadows the familiar narrative but the style is so unique and so bold that you’ll be too busy tapping your toe to play that too much mind.