In his review of the 1997 crime thriller Freeway, Roger Ebert established what he called Ebert’s Law. A movie is not about what it is about, but rather how it is about it. In other words, the true quality of a film is found in its style and execution rather than its narrative content. Nowhere does that rule ring more true than in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. No stranger to blending genres, Wright takes what otherwise might have been a boilerplate heist story and remixes it with the style and rhythm of a jukebox musical to dazzling effect. The result is one of the most nimble and energetic action films in a year that’s already had its fair share of gems.
The story may not be much to write home about, but then that’s not necessarily the point.
Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a young getaway driver working under the direction of Kevin Spacey’s Doc. Doc plans the heists, a revolving door of criminals—including Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González)—steal the goods, and Baby drives. When Baby falls for a waitress named Debora (Lily James), he begins planning an escape from his life of crime. But as with most crime stories, his one last job turns out to be his greatest challenge yet.
Baby survived a traumatic car crash as a child, which left him with a rough case of tinnitus, forcing him to drown it out with a constant stream of music. This provides us with a soundtrack that might be the most deep and eclectic in Wright’s filmography. We’re treated to classic hits from Barry White and Martha and the Vandellas, to deep cuts from Queen and Beck, to more modern tunes by Danger Mouse and Run the Jewels. There isn’t a style or genre that this film doesn’t seem to enjoy, and it frequently finds unconventional ways of deploying hits like The Commodores’ “Easy”.
The film matches pace with the soundtrack by cutting and choreographing entire sequences to the music playing in Baby’s head. Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” literally narrates Baby’s morning coffee run, complete with song lyrics dotting the streets and buildings around him. The first few sequences suggest that this might wind up being the entire film, which would have been a daring and almost definitely exhausting choice. Instead, the film settles into a rhythm in which Baby’s music obsession manifests itself in other, more thematic ways.
Doc describes Baby’s condition as a “hum in the drum,” one of a dozen turns of phrase that seem tailor-made for driving the “nobody talks like that” crowd right up the wall. People do talk like that, it’s just that they’re usually singing when they do it. Much of the film’s dialogue feels like song lyrics just waiting to be put to music, which Baby eventually does with the help of a tape recorder. He captures bits of conversations, plays them back, and remixes them into music of his own. This leads to a narrative thread that the film never fully capitalizes on, instead landing closer to something out of Guardians of the Galaxy. I really hope “mommy issues and cassette tapes” doesn’t become some kind of hipster action movie trope.
Edgar Wright’s gift for genre subversion turns out to be the saving grace of the film.
It’s easy to imagine a lesser filmmaker turning Baby Driver into a straight-down-the-middle action comedy. The plot feels like something a studio would have hacked together in 1998, and incidentally the exact kind of film Wright gorged himself on as a kid. (His affinity for action trash is well-documented.) But, he zigs where so many of those films zagged. Wright’s interests lie more in capturing the attitude of those action films as much as the action itself, and subverting expectations at every possible turn.
To that end Wright reunites with cinematographer Bill Pope, using the same camera rigs employed on Mad Max Fury Road to stage car chases in much tighter quarters than we’re used to seeing on film. The effect is exhilarating, as Baby zips in and out of traffic, down busy Atlanta corridors, and spirals around in parking garages. The film’s final confrontation, while definitely not the showstopper chase sequence this reviewer was expecting, is thrilling nonetheless. Baby Driver constantly finds ways to keep viewers on their toes in a story we’ve already seen a thousand times. That’s where this film’s true magic lies; a killer soundtrack and style to spare is just icing on the cake.Liked This? Share It!