Baby Driver is the kind of movie that could only be made by a gigantic fan of movies, and specifically the kind of stylish action pictures that characterised a film education born of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. That man is, and always has been, Edgar Wright.
Wright has taken the traditional path to making a film like Baby Driver, which feels like the pinnacle of everything he’s learned and developed cinematically since he made his first major picture, Shaun of the Dead. That wasn’t his first feature technically (that honour goes to 1995’s little known A Fistful of Fingers) and after several TV directing gigs, largely of comedy, Wright came to prominence with cult TV series Spaced in the late 1990’s, which began his signature partnership with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Spaced has endured in the public consciousness because it was ahead of its time; a post-modern encapsulation of self-referential ‘meta’ on TV, crammed with cinematic allusions and references (heavily on Star Wars). It was a TV show made by a group of creatives who understood cinema, the touchstones, winks, nods and history. Pegg and Frost took that into their acting careers but Wright retained it for his directorial one. Shaun of the Dead was a comic roast of the George Romero zombie movie, Hot Fuzz did the same for the buddy action flick and The World’s End gamely tried, and failed, to do so for the alien invasion movie.
The so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ with his old mates were safe bets for Wright. It was British comedy territory he knew and, to an extent, helped create. 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World was his first taste of bigger Hollywood, American filmmaking, and quite how his kinetic, punchy, self-effacing style would connect with that level of filmmaking. Boasting a major cast, a beloved comic-book source material and a ton of retro video game in-jokes, Scott Pilgrim has remained divisive; loved by some as a cult curio, hated by others, and many still probably never got around to seeing it.
Then came the Ant-Man debacle, which arguably knocked Wright off his stride when after significant development (and an exciting sizzle reel), Marvel Studios unceremoniously parted ways with he and co-writer Joe Cornish. It was undoubtedly a watershed moment for Wright and it’s probable Baby Driver, a film Wright claims to have had “in his head” for over twenty years, may not have happened, or indeed happened so quickly, had Wright become part of a Marvel machine spending the better part of the next decade on what will likely be a trilogy set within the MCU.
We can debate that being a blessing or disguise until the cows come home but one wonders if Wright even needs Ant-Man, certainly after Baby Driver. While not a perfect film, it glides past Hot Fuzz as his most confident, accomplished piece of filmmaking to date. The Cornetto Trilogy always had a level of knockabout film-school fun about them, like a bunch of goofy geeks playing around with a camera and aware of how they shouldn’t be getting away with it. Baby Driver plays like a piece of cinema made by a burgeoning auteur, someone with his own sense of style while keeping one eye on half a dozen cinematic touchstones, from the grit of Walter Hill to the casual, violent cool of Tarantino.
There’s often a sense watching Baby Driver that you’re watching something iconic in the making. It’s sure to be a career defining performance by Ansel Elgort, who here breaks free of the shadow of films such as the Divergent series as the eponymous Baby who drives; the quiet protagonist with an Elvis tick and soft voice, around whom the story and indeed Wright’s unique stylistic vision pivots. Wright’s cast and their characters are impossibly cool in the way only movie stars playing crooks can be, in the middle of a crime caper which is dancing just like Baby does when he’s picking up coffee for the crew he’s just driven away from a robbed bank.
Music, you see, is crucial to Baby Driver. Not only because Baby himself has tinnitus (enjoy listening to how Americans pronounce that word) and needs to drown out the constant tinny ringing with the sounds on his iPod, but also for the fact Wright specifically tailors many of his cuts and action set-pieces to specific tunes Baby is listening to; an opening getaway set to the barnstorming ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sets the tone for a picture where tunes are almost always a constant, and play both to the direction, story and Baby’s psychology. At one point he stops an impending heist because his accompanying soundtrack isn’t playing at the right point. That’s pure Edgar Wright, right there.
Touches like that go back to Wright’s cinematic awareness. How often has he watched a movie and considered how important a specific song or piece of scored orchestra is crucial to the effectiveness of a classic scene? Here, his central character is the one with that Edgar level of awareness, so while Baby Driver may be a world away from the geek chic of Spaced, on some level Wright’s meta eye still hasn’t left him. The fact he chooses a soundtrack Tarantino would be proud of, filled with 60’s and 70’s tunes, some well known, some gloriously obscure, only help to increase that iconic sense of swing Baby Driver has coursing through its veins.
Wright’s use of music also helps to sell the fact Baby Driver is wonderfully timeless. While clearly not set in the past, given the use of iPods and modern cars, there’s something just a little bit classic about Wright’s film. The diner where Baby meets Debora (Lily James) has a touch of 1950’s Americana about it, as indeed does their relationship (take the vision sequences of Baby meeting her to hit the open road – pure James Dean cool). Kevin Spacey’s heist fixer Doc is pure smart-talking 70’s gangster, while you could pluck Jamie Foxx’ Bats out of a 90’s hip hop environment and not lose a step. It’s a cross-pollination of eras and styles which work in this no-fixed-abode Atlanta.
The biggest inspiration many have cited of course is Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978, so perhaps Baby Driver can be seen as an extension of that pulpy action sensibility. Wright makes sure it’s grounded in a strong emotional component across the picture nonetheless; Baby is the classic reluctant criminal – in hock to Doc, wanting to do just one last job before he gets a regular job so he can look after his aged, deaf foster father, and pursue his sweet relationship with fellow dreamer, waitress Debora. Baby’s psychology goes back to an abusive parental relationship and losing his family at a young age – he’s become so introverted through the music and tinnitus he records the world around him and recites, parrot fashion, lines from movies at key times when needed. He’s a complex figure played with transparent ease and brevity by Elgort.
Arguably one of the strongest elements is the Baby/Debora dynamic. For all the pulse pounding car chase sequences and ultra-cool music tracks, it’s their love story which provides the beating heart of Baby Driver, and boy does it make you feel. Elgort and James (possibly at her career best to date) have remarkable chemistry and chew into a script from Wright which gives them a soft, sometimes awkward, definitely geek chic romance that resonates. It’s a step on for Wright from the kind of Star Wars-inflected romances he’d pitch Simon Pegg into; for these two, their manna is old vinyl and the new American Dream of hitting the road in a car they can’t afford with a plan they don’t have. It’s beautiful.
Wright thankfully gives them antagonists who frequently keep you terrified something awful is going to happen to this wonderful couple. Spacey’s gonna Spacey, you know his shtick now, that guy could read the phone book and sound as menacing as deadly silk, but Foxx is the one who really impresses; his hoodlum Bats is a true psychopath and every time he opens his mouth, especially where Baby is concerned, a sense of dread fills every word. A scene where he psychoanalyses Jon Hamm’s slick buddy, possibly unlocking a Wall Street legend, is mesmerising. The fact Wright manages to maintain this undulating level of possible violence under such a sweet, frothy caper is remarkable.
It’s a shame it kind of falls apart at the last hurdle. After Hamm’s exposure, which hints at a subversive level inside Baby Driver which speaks to the little man working to screw over the big guy (as a great deal of cinema made by leftists do in these austere, right wing times), Wright can’t help but drive the film perhaps necessarily over a plot ledge. The final third could have gone somewhere a little smarter when instead it puts the people you may expect in peril and turns one character in particular into a sneering rent-a-baddie. That’s the only weak spot and Wright just—just—manages to salvage it by his final few moments.
Baby Driver isn’t the best film of the year (though it’s going to be up there) but man it might end up being the coolest. Move aside Quentin, there’s a new dude in town and his name is Edgar.