Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. All four of these films are cult classics, if not just outright classics without the cult attached, and all four were written and directed by Edgar Wright. That would make for an impressive enough resume, but what makes it even more impressive is that, for major motion pictures, that is its entirety There is no Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, no Kurosawa’s Dreams, no Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, there is, so far no bad movie marring an otherwise perfect record. So, when Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver was announced it was to a good deal of anticipation and fanfare, and I’m happy to say the fanfare is deserved and the perfect record is still intact.
The reason Edgar Wright keeps making classics is because he keeps sticking to what he does best and that is taking a genre and half paying homage, half satrizing, and stylizing the hell out of said genre while using it to skewer the way we live our lives. Wright actually switches up the formula mildly, because while it is most certainly a stylized genre filck, there is little of the satire, humor, or society skewering which is half of Wright’s trademark style. What Wright gives us this time is a slick, smart, but straightforward crime movie. Baby (Andel Elgort) was orphaned at a very young age, and the auto accident which killed his parents left him with tinnitis (a permanent ringing in the ears) and an obsession with cars. A run in with crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey) at a slightly older, but still very young, age left Baby with a debt he had to repay and, so he now works as Doc’s permanent get away driver in a crew of otherwise constantly rotating criminals including Jon Hamm as Buddy, Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, and Jamie Foxx as Bats.
These characters are all compelling due to a real sense of motivation, dialogue that is both natural and clever, and performances that exemplify a commitment to the art of bringing a fictional person to life. While there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, it is Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez who truly go above and beyond in Baby Driver and steal every single scene they are in as their Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminal lovers who eventually reveal themselves to be far more unstable than their charming exteriors would suggest. These two give two of the most accurate portrayals of true sociopaths I’ve ever seen captured in film in the way they disarm even the viewer with their charisma and false empathy all the while caring about nothing beyond themselves.
The camerawork is also excellent here, though, a few of the action pieces which do not involve cars did get a little dark and muddled, allowing us to experience the intense pacing of Baby Driver with very little confusion or lack of perspective. The excellent choreography of both the actual action pieces as well as the cameras which capture these pieces show a true area of growth for Wright as a film maker as, while he has always focused on action genres in his previous films, he has never before been given a budget this large nor a story which relies so much on truly death defying stunt work, and he handles it all at a level that embarrasses many directors who have been putting together high spectacle action films their entire careers (yes, I’m still angry at you for last week Michael Bay).
The use of music in the movie is also invigorating. Due to Baby’s tinnitis, he listens to music throughout nearly the entire running time of the film to show that music is a never ending obsession of his because it drowns out the ringing in his ears, and other reasons which would enter into spoiler territory. The music selection is mostly older, but it does run a gamut from the incredibly popular and overplayed to the “how have I never heard this song?, I love this band” level of exposure, and it really adds an additional level of fun to the film in very much the way the Awesome Mixes did in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
What really makes the film shine, though, is the way all of these elements are edited together into a cohesive whole. We get why the characters are criminals, and we appreciate their motivations and quirks. We ooh and ahh at the stunts and the excellent cinematography being used to capture them, and the tunes get our foots tapping and our heads bobbing . When the car is spinning and the guns blazing in the rhythm of the hip hop beat as the graffiti going by in the background portrays the lyrics of song on the I-Pod and the banter even starts to go along with the beat, that’s when we realize what a true work of love we are experiencing. The visuals, acting, and screenwriting are all very well done, but the editing is the real masterwork on display.
All that is not to say Baby Driver doesn’t have its share of problems, though, and a couple fairly serious ones at that. The first is that by removing Wright’s sense of satire, we really don’t have much more going on here than a remarkably pretty series of action set pieces broken up by bits of banter. There is no lesson to be learned here, no exploration of character, and no real insight into our universe. The love story is believable, but ultimately pretty banal for a movie, and even the pseudo familial ties ultimately are nothing more than an excuse for be involved in a certain power dynamic.
The other, and I feel slightly more serious, problem is one of pacing, though not a typical issue in which the director couldn’t quite get the timing of action versus plot advancement. In Baby Driver we get incredible action right off the bat letting us see right away the creative and kinetic journey we have ahead of us, and while the film never ceases being intelligent, frantic, and stylish, it also never surpasses what it gives us at the start. This leaves us with a movie that plateaus immediately and never really builds to a climactic resolution, leaving us a bit disappointed without really completely understanding why at the end.
Final verdict: Edgar Wright continues his legacy of excellence with Baby Driver, but this most likely is a film that will remembered more as a film made by Edgar Wright than as a film which stands as great under its own merit. Despite its problems, there is a lot more to like here than to dislike, an awful lot more, but this is also certainly a film that many will walk away from feeling it was overhyped and will suffer a hit of reputation due to this. Baby Driver is a fun, stylish, fantastic crime movie which will leave nearly everyone satisfied. Just understand that on the Edgar Wright scale, this is closer to The World’s End than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.