Film Review: ‘Baby Driver’ is a Mixtape of Killer Music and Action

In some ways, “Baby Driver” is both very much like what filmmaker Edgar Wright has done before, while also being a whole new direction for him. Wright shifts gears (no pun intended) from parodying a genre to homaging it, making this movie something of an odd duck. Often a lot of fun, the film also has a habit of leaning into a lot of cliches, for better and worse. Wright clearly wanted to honor past classics like “The Driver” and more modern ones like “Drive,” just with his own spin. “The Fast and the Furious,” this decidedly is not. The end result is certainly successful, but it does stay just a bit too much on the surface, which is not usually the case from Wright. This is essentially a feature length music video when all is said and done, with a top notch soundtrack to boot.

“Baby Driver” is probably as close as Wright can come to making a mainstream movie. Even with a bigger budget on “Scott Pilgrim vs the World,” he still delivered something esoteric and distinctly his. This has flashes of Wright’s kinetic editing and pop culture wit, but it also operates more firmly within pure genre. Depending on how this all sounds to you, this could either be your favorite or least favorite outing from the filmmaker–it will be interesting to see how audiences respond. For some, this could be a breath of fresh air in terms of car-based action flicks. For others, it could be, even with Wright modulating some of his eccentric quirks, just too odd.

The film kicks into gear immediately, dropping you directly into its world. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a prodigy getaway driver, using a series of iPods set to specific music in order to effortlessly pilot vehicles with incredible skill. He sets his life, heists included, to music, in large part due to a bad case of tinnitus that is only drowned out by song. He’s the preferred driver for criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom he’s financially in debt since childhood. Baby is one more job away from being square with Doc, and after he meets waitress Debora (Lily James), he has even more reason to give up his current way of life. It’s not going to be easy though.

What follows is a literal race to the finish. Baby often works with Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), with whom he gets along. He can even deal with the obnoxious Griff (Jon Bernthal), but when paired with the volatile Bats (Jamie Foxx), they don’t mix. Soon, a heist goes bad and Baby is on the run. Can he manage to get away with Debora? Will he end up a target of Doc? Will the music ever stop? There’s a consistently engaging pace here, give or take a postscript that has more heart than anything else shown previously.

This is the first Wright picture not to have a performance among its cast to rave about. To be sure, the acting in “Baby Driver” is very solid. It just doesn’t have a particular standout. Ansel Elgort is an unconventional action lead, though that’s Wright’s intention. The occasional funny moments are when he’s at his best. Elgort bonds better with the music than the rest of the cast, which is fitting. Elgort’s chemistry with Lily James is solid, though she’s given very little to do or agency of her own. Again, the music is what Elgort mixes best with. Hell, the soundtrack is a character of its own. Between this and “The Fault in Our Stars,” Elgort certainly mixes well with musical cues.

Among the supporting players, Kevin Spacey is probably best in show, as he manages to do deadpan with a nice little style. Jon Hamm also is well cast, playing a character you wouldn’t expect. Jamie Foxx is fine, though a bit one note. In addition to Eiza González, the cast also includes Sky Ferreira, CJ Jones, and a handful more.

Edgar Wright designed this movie in a very specific way. Music is essential to every moment of it. You’re listening to Baby’s internal monologue, which is a playlist. Calling it a theatrical music video isn’t necessarily a criticism. Individual beats of each song partner with the action on the screen in a way you rarely see on film. It’s a credit to his direction, the work of cinematographer Bill Pope, and composer Steven Price that they make it work. Wright’s direction of the action sequences are terrific, along with his overall pacing. “Baby Driver” undeniably has tremendous choreography. The aforementioned conclusion slows things down a lot, but it wraps up the film in a way that arguably is worth the slack nature of it.

There are moments of humor and wit to be found here, though Wright’s script is less concerned with laughter than ever before. He leans into cliches with an earnestness that doesn’t mix as well with his sensibilities as parody does. Maybe that will resonate as a unique deconstruction of the genre for you. The music does fuel it in a very specific way. That being said, his style on its own might have done the trick. It just comes down to a matter of personal preference. Regardless, seeing Wright do something different like this is interesting to watch. He’s showcased his range in a way that not all filmmakers are willing to try. Fans can compare this to something of his like “Hot Fuzz” and see which side of the coin they prefer.

Essentially, “Baby Driver” offers up something with the DNA of “Drive” as well as the style of Wright. Responses all across the spectrum will have equally valid points. While yours truly doesn’t quite understand the out and out raves, this is still a very entertaining movie. If it doesn’t subvert genre like the filmmaker is capable of, that just prevents a good film from being a great one. “Baby Driver” has the makings of a cult classic, though it could see immediate popularity beforehand. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

“Baby Driver” is distributed by Sony Pictures and opens in theaters on June 28.

GRADE: (★★★)

Trailer:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9YZw_X5UzQ&w=560&h=315]