OnScreen Review: 'Baby Driver'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Through four feature films, Edgar Wright has not directed a bad film. Beginning with Shaun of the Dead, Wright has turned out top-notch, crowd-pleasers that gleefully play around in genre sandboxes. In Shaun, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The World’s End, Wright has displayed a keen visual flare and knack for clever dialogue. Despite never having a film that has grossed more than $32 million domestically, he is one of the most proficient directors working right now. Baby Driver is his fifth directorial effort, and he continues his streak of not making a bad film.

Set in Atlanta, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for bank robberies that are organized by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby always has his headphones on and drives to his soundtracks, which help him to focus because of a childhood accident that resulted in permanent tinnitus (Mawp… mawp…) and the death of his parents. Baby has been driving for Doc for years to get out of debt for him, and is nearly there. The crews that pull of the heists are never the same, except for Baby, who is a supremely skilled driver, even though he is young. A few of Doc’s regular people, though, are “Buddy” (Jon Hamm), his wife “Darling” (Eiza Gonzalez), “Griff” (Jon Berthnal), and “Bats” (Jamie Foxx). When Baby is nearly squared with Doc and desiring to get away from it all, he’s pulled into one last score that puts him and everyone he loves at risk, including Debora (Lily James), the pretty young waitress that he falls for.

The first of many things that stands out about this film is how it incorporates music. The soundtrack or score is not there to merely supplement the scenes and prompt the audience on how to feel. From the opening scene where Baby waits in the car while a robbery goes down and he sings along to “Bellbottoms” by the John Spencer Blues Explosion, the music is woven into the fabric of the film. In an unbroken take shortly after that, Baby is walking to a coffee shop around the corner with his ear buds in listening to “Harlem Shuffle” and the entire sequence is choreographed to the song. It’s a thing of beauty.

In fact, there are several instances where scenes, gunshots, tire squeals, and other action beats are matched to the soundtrack, much like how “Don’t Stop Me Now” scene played out in Shaun of the Dead or how the engine revs in Mad Max: Fury Road served as the score in some instances. The ability to sync all of this together into a cohesive whole is a testament to Wright’s creativity as a filmmaker. It’s perhaps the closest thing to an action film being a musical that I have ever seen. This film is simply energetic.

That energy is carried also comes through in the car chases too, in spades. Leaving the movie theater after seeing this film, you may need to make a conscious effort to obey the speed limit driving home. Unlike, say, Michael Bay, who litters his movies with jump cuts and quick edits that scream that he is too hyperactive as a director, Wright deploys them in his action in a way that makes the energy of the action infectious for the viewer, making you feel like you are in the car with Baby and the crew racing through the streets to avoid the cops. The real beauty of this film is that every aspect of it is operating like a finely tuned vehicle, every part working in chorus with the rest to maximize the vehicle’s performance.

Elgort is capable in the lead as Baby, pulling off the cool, quiet, and mysterious demeanor. Baby is someone who has only driven and never had to get his hands dirty, and the question lingers of what he will do if he needs to get his hands dirty. As the brains of the operation, Spacey is a lot of fun as Doc, a no-nonsense, fast-talking character that Spacey clearly has a lot of fun playing. Hamm gets a chance to play against the Don Draper type in Buddy. Foxx, though, is given a chance to show what he is still capable of; Bats is a menacing, unpredictable element in the mix and someone always seems to end up dead around him. Sadly, Lily James, who shined in Cinderella a few years ago, is not given much to do beyond being the light at the end of the tunnel for Baby. Another strong piece of the cast is CJ Jones who portrays Baby’s foster father, Joseph, who is deaf, wheelchair-bound, and concerned about the work Baby finds himself doing. Their relationship is touching and Jones’ performance is a small but important part of the film in showing the good side of Baby, who the film takes pains to point out is a good kid caught up in a bad situation.

If there is anything that may hamper the film slightly is that the “one last job” aspect of the story is so familiar. But Wright has made a career of making genre films that revel in the tropes and finding new ways to keep them fresh, whether it is a zombie apocalypse or the buddy cop flick, so why should “one last job” be any different? The one minor hang-up I had was with the final act, which pulls a bit of a bait and switch on who gets the onus of being the final, ultimate villain and obstacle to Baby and Debora getting free and clear of it all. The film hints that the character has a dark side of rage that Baby and others should never want to see, but it’s only suggested and implied until the ending. Perhaps an earlier scene illustrating that could have made it feel less like a swerve.

Baby Driver is kinetic, fast-paced, and has a dexterity that is rare for most action films these days. It is the most enjoyable experience I have had in a movie theater this year, with only John Wick: Chapter 2 coming close to the level of pure revelry of filmmaking on display. The music, the action, the editing, everything about the film is working in unison. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, it hits the gas and rarely lets up until the credits roll.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars