BABY DRIVER (2017)
Directed by: Edgar Wright
The Plot: At 22 years old an exceptionally gifted getaway driver (Elgort) for a crime syndicate has reached the point in his career where he’d like to retire. He’s found a promising love interest in a pretty young waitress, (James) and has stowed away enough cash running criminals (Hamm, Foxx, Gonzalez, Flea, Bernthal) from the police to start over doing something with a much brighter future than strong arm robbery. The only thing holding him back is a ruthless crime boss (Spacey) promising all kinds of familial death and dismemberment if he leaves the job.
The Film: There’s a moment in Baby Driver where our driving wunderkind ‘Baby’ grabs his sweetheart Debora, and the two misappropriate a 2017 Dodge Challenger as a tidal wave of Atlanta cops and underworld killers descend upon them. By this point in the film we have clearly grasped that Baby doesn’t do any driving without the support of at least one of his hundred different iPod playlists, and this occasion – as distressing as it may be – is absolutely no different. He dials in Young MC’s Know How, a frenetic payload of classic hip hop rhyming set to a sample of Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft, he punches the gas on his supercharged Challenger, (aka, the Millennial Falcon) and because Edgar Wright has consciously designed the soundtrack of the natural world of his film to find the rhythm of the musical soundtrack he’s using to bedrock his story in, the sirens and squealing tires add treble to the thump of the bass of the old school rap hit, and in this most excellent moment in time we’re all suddenly involved – spectators and characters together – in what may very well be one of cinema’s flyest moments.
If only every film had as much personality and blistering style as Baby Driver – if only every film was as fly as this one – I doubt we’d ever find enough excuses not to go to the theater.
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver isn’t a noir thriller. It’s a noir block party. A culture clash of classic cinema and postmodern hipsterism. New kid Ansel Elgort (his father was a photographer in case you were wondering) is more Gene Kelly than Gene Hackman. He’s an old soul programmed into the body of a peach-fuzzed millennial. More crooner than criminal. Baby carries the entire 30 song soundtrack for the film on one of his many iPods (everything from the Shuffle to the 160gb brick – everything but the lame-o Touch) stuffed inside his jean jacket pockets.
As he says: “I have different iPods for different days and moods.”
His reason for listening to so much music is to counter the tinnitus brought on by a catastrophic car crash from his youth – one that killed his parents. The real reason is that Edgar Wright wants an indelible score for his film about indelible scores. Car chases just play better set to killer music. From The Damned’s Neat Neat Neat, to Martha And The Vandellas’ Nowhere To Run, to Queen’s Brighton Rock this score is ridiculously jamming.
Great Britain’s Edgar Wright shares the same affection for the American crime film that Aussie John Hillcoat wished to synthesize with his petulant misfire Triple Nine last year – also set in Atlanta. It’s the same fascination Kiwi director Andrew Dominik tapped into with his excellent, and laudably stark Killing Them Softly. Wright chooses to fetishistize the blight of American crime through the chirpy filter of a Levi’s jeans commercial. The dialogue, the jokes, the criminal moxie, they all pop like bubblegum in Baby Driver.
Even bullets find the infectious beat of the movie.
In a shootout between factions much later in the film, gunfire matches the percussion of The Button Down Brass’s rendition of Tequila. Jamie Foxx’s character “Bats” even closes the gun battle out with a hand grenade and an audible “Tequila!” in sync with both song and explosion.
Not everything sings in this film however. For one thing there’s a tendency by Edgar Wright to anoint Baby with Sainthood status. He’s a good kid, he takes care of his elderly foster parent – an African American man who is hearing impaired in case you needed a running tally of virtue points Baby has accrued under his belt – he hand delivers coffee to his criminal underworld strategy meetings, but no matter how much his crime bosses may use the promise of horrific violence to coerce the desired results out of Baby, it’s still stretching plausibility to believe anyone this clean would be mixed up with people and crimes this dirty.
That being said, Wright’s film is, in essence, a clash of genres, of bright and bleak tones, the clash between golden age musical and bracing crime drama. So this clean-cut pacifist integrates with the anarchic fusion of the piece. A piece that even explores the clash between romantic methods.
Love, as presented here, is intensified between hardened criminals. Life is much shorter in this occupational demographic. Death more imminent and sudden. So yeah, when you look like John Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez, and live life like Dutch Schultz, you take a minute to sloppily make out in an elevator ride full of other people. Juxtaposing against the fated sexuality of the neck-tattooed damned we have the fairy tale of Baby and his girl Debora. A fairy tale in that Wright has cast the role of Baby Driver’s Cinderella with the actual Cinderella from Kenneth Branagh’s live action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella. It’s a pleasant surprise discovering a classic love story this sweet and this true – this Swayze and Grey – in the middle of a film polluted with black comedy, crime, and reckless violence.
The real sinker to Wright’s new film, however, is that much like with his last directorial effort, The World’s End, Wright can’t seem to settle for a single ending for his movie. Edgar again makes the costly mistake of allowing a solidly entertaining film degenerate into tonal mayhem. To have such a confident and capable crime comedy suddenly develop dissociative personality disorder during the final act is kind of demoralizing. That it happened twice in a row for this particular filmmaker seems to indicate a problem.
For his Criterion Collection Top 10 list Edgar Wright included Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. A car movie by any standard, though one playing firmly by the rules of the 60’s American independent film movement – which means it doesn’t follow any rules. Two-Lane Blacktop ends during a drag race when the film stock literally burns and disintegrates apart. The images onscreen blister and distort and finally dissolve into black. The medium gives out before the story concludes essentially – James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are never going to stop racing, are never going to stop tinkering with their 55′ Chevy Custom, even though the film they’re in must at some point.
And that is how you end your car movie Edgar Wright.
The Verdict: Right up until the cavalcade of gratuitous endings I was having a blast with Baby Driver. Not that the finale should keep you away from a film as cool and kinetic as this one most assuredly is. Summer is ripe territory for clever adult action thrillers. Witness last Summer’s Shane Black vehicle The Nice Guys. Baby Driver has plenty of personality and attitude – and rhythm above all else – for anyone looking for a good time at the box office Summer 2017. And who knows? Maybe the ending will age better as time passes. I doubt it will, but who knows?