Review: Baby Driver

A fun and frenzied action musical without singing, Baby Driver is an original and entertaining breath of fresh air with a great soundtrack.

In Atlanta, ‘Baby’ (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for kingpin ‘Doc’ (Kevin Spacey) and his everchanging crew of miscreants. Suffering with tinnitus, ‘Baby’ has a constant soundtrack to drown this out, and has become an indispensable tool for ‘Doc’. Trying to get out of the game, ‘Baby’ meets Debora (Lily James), but both ‘Doc’ and some of his mad criminal associates pose a danger.

For a fan of Edgar Wright’s films, I was looking forward to whatever he did next, but knowing it would be an original idea centred around music and action made it twice as interesting. The film did not disappoint – in fact, my main criticism was that I’d have liked more of it! Wright’s whipcrack directing, camera moves and sense of a pulsing sort of rhythm mean that the film takes on the feel of a musical without the singing – or a musical in which some of the supporting cast have no idea they’re in one.

The point is that everything in Baby’s life aligns to his music, and so you get that excellent feeling of synchronisation, pushing the action on or threading perfectly into the proceedings. Wright, editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss and cinematographer Bill Pope are all equally responsible, their cooperative framework making the movie fizz, matching the music cleverly and intelligently while also remaining crisp and clear enough to understand. It also nails that “neon dream” idea of the US we all imagine, with locations stereotypical but feeling realistic as well.

The action is also excellent, stunt drivers utilised perfectly to give the driving and chases a crunching sense of danger, tension and exhilaration, while sporadic gunfights and violence show a combination of the director’s love of both. The film is also VERY LOUD, which is a warning for those that get fed up with higher volumes – but then it wouldn’t be the assault on the senses it is without the booming sound effects. The music though – this is the star. From The Damned to Queen, from Run the Jewels to Focus; from punk to rock opera, hip-hop through to prog rock. Everything fits the scene it’s in, and the scenes themselves are crafted to fit the music in a strangely balletic way.

Personally, I still have the prog-rock madness of Focus (complete with yodelling) ringing around in my head, and I’m sure others who’ve seen it feel the same about that or other songs, or have even bought the soundtrack. We’ve all done what Wright depicts here in pretending our surroundings meet with the music we listen to, and so it’s that much more fun when you see it played out onscreen to convincing and bruising action.

The story itself is fine, nothing amazingly special in places, but then it’s the bare bones on which the madness can develop. Little story tweaks and surprising twists also give it a bit more life, with Wright’s comedic sensibilities never far away (one criminal ‘puts the Asian in home invasion’, for instance). In fact, if you take a step back and think about it, it follows the tried-and-tested noir storyline or ‘one last job’ archetypes perfectly, but features so much novelty that this doesn’t matter.

The cast is headed up by the young, stoic Elgort, who doesn’t have to say much with an Elvis-style southern accent, but who glares and glowers through sunglasses convincingly enough. The character slowly unfurls as we understand more about him, and I was impressed particularly by how he stands toe-to-toe with some of the more out-there and scenery-chewing co-stars, as well as Baby’s growing emotional reactions as he’s drawn out of his comfort zone.

…speaking of which, Spacey plays to type as the slippery, threatening but unpredictable ‘Doc’, who appears to be a criminal mastermind with the hints of a human being underneath. He gets to really joke around in the role, showing his ability in comedy that is too rarely taken advantage of. Jamie Foxx adds psychopathic menace and rage as Bats, a true nutjob who instantly begins to destabilise the group and Baby’s hold on hopes for a real life, while Jon Hamm’s Buddy meanders between familial feelings towards the young driver and a darkly criminal mindset, the actor bringing his honed sense of mystery and danger to the role as well as comedy.

Buddy’s wife Darling, played by Eiza Gonzalez is sadly less developed and more one part of a double-act, with the character honestly robbed of any unique traits beyond being attractive and passionate. James’ Debora brings a sense of reality and sweetness to the plot, again trying her best with what amounts to a barely-written love interest role, but mostly having an impact through her meet-cute interactions with the lead. It’s a shame neither of the women really have anything unique about them, particularly after Wright’s great work on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with the memorable female characters.

Honourable mentions go to Jon Bernthal as another perturbed criminal fed up with Baby’s idiosyncracies (I wish he’d been in it more, given the potential for comedy there); CJ Jones as Baby’s deaf, kind and hilarious foster father; and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, as another slightly crazy crew member (again, more of him would have been good).

If you’re a Wright fan, think of Baby Driver as a more fluid, professional, American and shiny version of everything he’s made so far combined. If you’re an action junkie, there’s absolutely loads on show for you, while those who like music AND action are absolutely set for a great experience. For the rest, this is something unique and exciting that’s definitely worth seeing in the cinema, just because watching it on TV later on just won’t have the same concussive impact.

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