Edgar Wright has always shown a knack for paying homage to traditional Hollywood genres with a unique and rather self-aware spin. In Shaun of the Dead, he created comedy through the eerie parallels between a clock-punching electronics store salesman/rom-com protagonist and George Romero-inspired zombies. The World’s End pushed the “you can’t go home again” line to its most bizarre extremes as a group of friends return to their hometown for a pub crawl only to discover that everyone has been replaced with alien duplicates. And Hot Fuzz turned the clichés of Hollywood action films on its head by transferring an action hero-inspired police officer to a mundane, crime-free town in the countryside. With Baby Driver, Wright once again strikes gold with a film inspired by classic action, heist and car chase sequences, but driven by a reliance on beats and music.
To protagonist Baby (that’s B-A-B-Y, played by Ansel Elgort), music is how he communicates with his surroundings. Having acquired tinnitus from a childhood car accident, Baby drowns out the constant ringing with a variety of songs to keep his mind and ears occupied elsewhere. As an outward appearance, this image of him in the shades and ear buds establishes Baby in the mold of a silent getaway driver. But it goes further than that: music is synonymous with the action on screen as it is for Baby’s interaction with his profession. Before a heist, he syncs up a song with the criminal’s actions from the moment they exit the car, to the point that he actually resets a song if they don’t leave on cue. In other words, every ounce of fight and vehicle choreography moves to the beat of a song on the radio or Baby’s iPod.
Where other films might use their soundtrack to create or enhance mood, Baby Driver deviates itself from Tarantino-like musical accompaniment by filming scenes as if they were part of a high-octane music video. The opening sequence alone does a brilliant job at conveying this, keeping the focus on Baby in the car as his three passengers make their assault on a bank. As he sings along to a song, they perform the heist, and it all works in sync. Every time a note goes up or down, it is matched by something on screen, be it a gunshot fired or screech of the tire as it hits the road. Such an approach to diegetic vs. non-diegetic narrative even extends beyond the action scenes and showcases itself in Baby’s personal life when doing something as mundane as getting coffee. In other words, Baby sees life as if it were a continuous song and does his best work when in touch with the rhythm.
While the chase sequences themselves are impressive, they are not the dominant force behind what makes this movie work. The real heart of Baby Driver is the protagonist’s story, which sees Baby close to paying off his debt for a heist/robbery organizer named Doc (Kevin Spacey). With his freedom in sight, Baby hopes to find work earning honest money, as well as to start a relationship with a waitress he’s met named Debora (Lily James). Despite being a rather simple motivation, Wright’s direction and Elgort’s portrayal of Baby give this standard trope a new sense of purpose as we come to care about his character. This human element, alongside the unique musical style, helps elevate Wright’s film from “very good” to “eventual classic.”
Alongside Baby and Debora’s relationship, Wright provides a decent level of characterization to Baby’s boss and partners in crime, all of whom are given enough time to remain memorable. From gun-totting lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) to impulsive yet hilarious Bats (Jamie Foxx), the film manages to establish strong connections between Baby and these characters in their shared car rides and pre-heist planning scenes. Kevin Spacey too leaves a lasting impression as the no-nonsense Doc, displaying a strong level of authority mixed with humor in his trademark Kevin Spacey charm. By building up Baby’s relationships with these anti-hero/antagonistic individuals, it avoids the risk most action films make in sacrificing the villain’s screentime to further develop the hero.
It’s only until the third act that the film begins to feel like it’s trying to cram too much story into one sitting. Not that the third act is inherently bad; on the contrary, I found it extremely well choreographed, action-packed, and rather emotional in finalizing Baby’s character arc. But it plays out like there are acts within acts, with each climax ending at a point that could have possibly concluded the story, only to pick up again a few minutes later. There are about three of these moments, and I feel that at least 10-15 minutes could have been removed from the film in order to trim down unnecessary fat. It’s really the only moment during which style overtakes content in what is otherwise an extremely lean action-drama film.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Baby Driver joins Edgar Wright’s Three Color Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as yet another classic film for the ages. It pays homage to old school action elements that made those films so compelling while delivering a modern spin with its music-synced choreography. Even though it dips its toe in the “style over substance” line near the very end, the final result is still a smartly written, acted and directed film that values human interactions as much as it does car chases.