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‘Baby Driver’ is Powered by a Slick Action Engine, But Still Sings Best in Idle

It’s not often in a film containing daredevil car chases, criminal showdowns, and wild west-style bank robberies that the most thrilling moment could be a stroll down the sidewalk to grab some coffee, but hey, director Edgar Wright is all about messing with audience expectations, so why not? Though Baby Driver may not achieve the finely-tuned results of his previous efforts at blending genres like Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, when this romantic-musical-meets-action-packed-heist-story manages to pop into the right gear, it purrs like a low-RPM, high-octane popcorn movie kitten. The last act revs things up a bit too far past the redline until the whole thing threatens to blow, but the beautiful music created by some truly virtuoso filmmaking thankfully keeps the resulting knocks and pings relegated to mere background noise.

Combining a boy-meets-girl arc with the old “one last score” crime story trope, Baby Driver sees a young man named Baby (it makes sense in context) working off his accidental debt to an underworld boss by performing as a getaway driver for various crews and capers. Due to some tinnitus brought on from an early childhood incident, Baby uses an assortment of iPods loaded with tracks to dull the ringing and keep him focused (a possible explanation for his Jedi-like driving abilities), as well as drown out the rest of a world he doesn’t really feel a part of yet. Only a few jobs away from settling up, Baby yearns to bust free from the shady shackles he’s currently held by, and upon meeting a charmingly sunny diner waitress named Debora who shares his taste in music (and also seems quite adept at mostly one-sided conversations), Baby has even more incentive to be his own man once again, to set off toward a horizon filled with open road and endless possibility. Just when you think you’re out, though…

Yes, there are plenty of snap-zooms on spinning rims and stick shifts, hyper-kinetic tracks and pans, and those looking for bullets to fly or baddies to snarl before cracking wise won’t be disappointed, but those elements have been done better elsewhere, including in Wright’s own repertoire (see the aforementioned Hot Fuzz), and to label Baby Driver as simply an action comedy is to do a great disservice to what the writer-director has done here. With its reliance on song to convey character, as well as carefully orchestrated choreography, Baby Driver is a musical first and foremost – but it veers off in its own imaginative direction. Rarely has a film and its soundtrack been so closely linked, intertwined, and utterly dependent upon each other for something other than eliciting reflexive emotions, and the outcome generates the kind of joyful excitement reserved for witnessing the birth of something new – or at the very least a joyful evolution of a stale genre, mutated for the next generation.

What starts off like a hip music video, matching thumping guitar riffs and pounding drums with windshield wipers and skidding tires, doesn’t take long to show its true ambitions. A title sequence composed of an extended tracking shot announces Baby Driver as a different kind of song and dance, one where nobody actually bursts out into song (although some lip-syncing does occur), but the world they occupy is still one of a whimsical fairy tale. When he’s not pumping gas pedals or maneuvering through traffic with the kind of precision steering that would make the Stig raise his mask in admiration, Baby two-steps his way through life like a Disney cartoon character might, with big dreams that can only find expression in dance and the perfect playlist. The world outside reflects the notes streaming into his head, with actions like washing machines spinning, doors slamming, or guns blasting perfectly reinforcing the seemingly never-ending beats. The visual and aural synthesis creates a uniquely beautiful symphony of movement and sound that lends incredibly charming weight to elements that would otherwise be considered light as air. It’s dazzling stuff, and surprisingly it works best when the rubber isn’t burning; watching someone make a sandwich has never been more endearing.

A large part of the success of Baby Driver also depends on this sort of likability. In order for the story of a bank robber hero to work (no matter how “forced” into breaking the law he might be), Baby needs to be a moral anchor. Wright certainly imbues him with compassion for others, the reluctant thief with a heart of gold, but it’s Ansel Elgort’s vulnerability beneath the cool that completely sells the premise. Elgort is able to convey a lot with very little, tasked with communicating a variety of emotions, from puppy love to pure rage, with highly economical dialogue. He makes a tough assignment look as easy as cruise control, a fleet-footed dance of facial expression. That he wears sunglasses for a good portion of the running time makes the feat even more impressive. What’s going on behind those shades? The main characters of musicals often come across as living in a projection of their own (possibly insane) mind, and Elgort keeps that theory a mysterious possibility by giving away just right amount.

For as much as Baby Driver can make the cinema soul sing, however, Wright’s tendency to fall back on insane action while contriving hackneyed solutions to the increasing number of obstacles his hero eventually faces nearly implodes the story upon itself. A particular character swing in the third act smacks of laziness, a tacit admission that the foundation for his house of cards was too shaky to sustain it. Because everyone but Baby is so thinly-sketched (despite a cast including Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Spacey that fill in the blanks as well as anyone could be expected to), he tends to use the supporting cast as props whose script purpose could switch at the turn of an ignition, a strategy that ends up as both the problem and solution, as though the betrayal is eye-rollingly unsatisfying, the impact is lessened by a lack of a relationship with anyone other than the star. Still, it’s a risky stunt, one that could have produced a fiery explosion instead of the clunky sputtering that results.

Baby Driver floors it near the end, and because of this reluctance to stick to quieter moments, it does run out of gas by the time it reaches its final, unnecessary destination, never quite finding out what lives over the horizon. Still, it’s a fun joyride laced with brilliance that will have film lovers hearts racing, and the memory of those stirring sights along the way will keep audiences focused on the possibility of what exciting times lie ahead.

Written By

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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