Edgar Wright has always been a filmmaker who’s used music to spectacular effect. From the explosive garage rock of Scott Pilgrim’s Sex Bob-Omb to Shaun of the Dead’s zombie-bashing scene set to Queen, Wright knows how to mash up mood, music, and action. So in some ways, his newest effort Baby Driver — about a tinnitus-afflicted, music-obsessed getaway driver — feels like a logical next step.
But the writer-director has delivered more than just a heist movie with a killer soundtrack: Baby Driver is a candy-colored action movie opera, where the music doesn’t just accompany the action — it fuels it. With Wright in the driver’s seat, your standard getaway driver story is transformed into a giddy, adrenaline-filled joyride that’ll leave you gripping the edge of your seat and tapping your feet.
Ansel Elgort stars as the titular fresh-faced protagonist, who lost his parents in a car crash as a kid. The accident left him with tinnitus, and to cope, “Baby” fixates on music, wearing headphones at all times and collecting iPods from the cars he boosts. In his everyday life, he’s awkward and obsessive, but when he gets behind the wheel of a car, he’s a savant, outrunning police and dodging spike strips like some sort of elegant, sunglasses-wearing ballerina.
He’s in debt to a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who, as payment, recruits Baby as a driver for his bank heists. The criminals who do the actual heisting — Baby isn’t really one for guns or blood — are a grab bag of addicts and psychopaths, all of whom are baffled by the enigmatic and mostly silent getaway driver. There’s Jamie Foxx as Bats, a short-tempered con who takes pride in being the craziest one on the team. There’s Eiza Gonzalez as Darling, a gun-toting, gum-smacking femme fatale. And there’s Jon Hamm as Darling’s husband Buddy, a tattooed thief with a white collar backstory. (It’s a role that finally takes advantage of Hamm’s talents, utilizing both the suave, selfish charm of Don Draper and the unhinged comedic lunacy of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne.)
These are the upstanding citizens that Baby hangs around, until he meets and promptly falls for a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James). She immediately understands (and is immediately charmed by) his odd quirks and musical obsession, and before long, he starts making plans to get out of the criminal game for good. But of course, “one last job” is never really “one last job,” and so begins a twisty tale of romance, revenge, and really good music.
Wright first mashed up getaway drivers and music with the 2002 music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” — a video that makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Baby Driver — but it’s an idea he’s been pondering for more than two decades. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s rollicking “Bellbottoms” served as his initial inspiration, and that’s the track that kicks off Baby Driver, set to an edge-of-your-seat car chase through downtown Atlanta. That opening chase is both a masterful achievement in stunt driving and just plain fun to watch, and it sets the tone for the rest of Baby’s story, soundtracked by a joyous collection of Beck, T. Rex, Martha and the Vandellas, Bob and Earl, Blur, The Damned, Young MC, and — of course — Queen.
Underneath all the jaw-dropping car chases and nerdy quips, the plot’s fairly conventional: Boy meets girl, boy tries to ditch his criminal past, everything goes to hell. Some of Baby and Debora’s lines about leaving it all behind and heading west can veer into cliché territory, and although James does her best to make Debora feel as real as possible, the film’s biggest flaw is that her character comes across as more of a goal for Baby to attain than an actual human being. As for Elgort, he can flirt and lip sync and run from the cops like the best of ‘em, but when the script asks him to be a little more earnest, he sometimes falters (as does his so-so Southern accent).
Still, some of the film’s more conventional elements work because in many ways, Baby Driver feels like a throwback. When’s the last time you saw a summer movie that could make your heart skip a beat with a car chase, instead of spaceships, superheroes, or the return of franchise characters from your childhood? As evidenced by Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, Wright knows how to deconstruct the classics with a wry self-awareness, but he also understands what makes them classic in the first place — a little humor, a little heart, and some really kickass action scenes. Baby Driver delivers all three in spades, and from the moment Jon Spencer Blues Explosion blares through Baby’s speakers, it hits the gas and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. A–