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Most film directors are obsessed with movement. They always think about how an actor moves within a frame, or how a camera moves around an actor. Edgar Wright takes this obsession into full-on fetish territory. Since Shaun of the Dead, his comedic action films have exaggerated movement. His camera heaves, twirls, and spins with precision. In that regard, Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver,is the final culmination of a style he has been honing his entire career. Wright also invents a new subgenre in the process: the action musical. You know when you’re walking down the street, the perfect song comes on your headphones, and you feel in sync with the universe? Baby Driver captures that feeling, and adds some car chases.
Ansel Elgort plays Baby, and the character is in the tradition started by Alain Delon in Le Samouraï and continued onward by Ryan Gosling in Drive. Baby is the soft-spoken, nearly silent wheel man for a crew of professional criminals. Their leader Doc (Kevin Spacey) brought him on board when he caught Baby trying to steal his car; he’s so talented, he gave him a job instead of breaking his legs. The film follows the typical “one last heist” structure. Baby is the reluctant criminal, while his accomplices Buddy (Jon Hamm), Bats (Jamie Foxx), and Darling (Eiza González) are far more eager/violent. The last job seems impossible to pull off, so Baby has to think on his feet—and the gas pedal—to evade one obstacle after another.
So what makes Baby Driver an action musical? Music is the only way Baby can function—an accident left him with tinnitus—so he constantly blasts tunes in his ears. His tastes are eclectic, with several iPods full of songs, but he generally prefers something percussive and upbeat when he’s in heist mode. The film opens with Baby listening to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Wright cuts the film so the images and editing match the length of the song’s central riff. That same overlay of music and imagery continues through to the romantic subplot: Baby falls in love with Debora (Lily James), a waitress at a diner, because she gorgeously hums Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” to herself. Many films use music, especially pop songs, to create a specific tone or mood. Baby Driver makes this relationship more symbiotic, to the point where you can describe specific scenes by the corresponding soundtrack.
This film marks the first time Edgar Wright set a film in the United States, and here he uses Atlanta’s vast, complex system of freeways and bridges to his advantage. The frequent action sequences are a celebration of movement; it’s almost like Baby can get his cars to dance. There are few establishing shots—Wright prefers to film cars from the bottom up—and so the chases have no omniscient point-of-view. Such an approach creates its challenges, and yet Wright knows when to pull back and let the stunts speak for themselves. He also finds a way to make car chases seem new, even claustrophobic. The most memorable is set inside a parking garage. The cars are in close proximity, colliding with each other constantly, and yet Wright uses the limited space to his advantage.
Another of Wright’s talents is finding the right actor for a role: All the actors in Baby Driver, including Elgort, are good fits for the archetypes they inhabit. Based on what we see here, Jon Hamm could be one of our great movie villains, since he easily veers from camaraderie to provoking genuine terror. As Bats, Jamie Foxx starts threatening and stays that way, and he maintains an air of intimidation through precise, economical word choice. Since Elgort and James are the more reactive, innocent characters, they are not having as much fun, yet they ground the movie’s borderline twee contrivances. Still, it’s the most fun to see Kevin Spacey letting his proverbial hair down, since his unflappable intelligence elevates his characters into something more sophisticated than they appear on paper.
Baby Driver runs into the same problems that plague Edgar Wright’s earlier work. He still does not know how to end a movie, and the epilogue drags into downright ponderous territory. In fact, if Wright had the discipline to end his work immediately after the climax, then Baby Driver would be one of the best, most original action films of the decade. This is where Wright’s affection gets in the way of his bottom line: He loves his characters so much, even the bad ones, that he feels obligated to give them a protracted sendoff. We shouldn’t begrudge him too much, however, since this is the rare, unique entertainment that takes classic action tropes, and turbocharges them.
Baby Driver is now playing in theaters everywhere.