Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a giddily energetic wind-up toy of a film, rocketing so boisteriously from scene to scene that we barely stop to question where it’s going, or even where we’ve been. This movie moves, steeped in the traditions of the heist picture (a ruthless boss, a rotating crew of colorful characters, a reluctant protagonist, and one last big score) but sifted through its central, great idea: a musical, but with car chases.
So Baby Driver isn’t just a riff on Drive or The Italian Job or Fast Five or the car caper of your choice; it’s a movie where the action beats (and, hell, most of the dialogue scenes) are blocked, shot, and cut in time to an endless playlist of great music. The door slams, the car horns, the skidding tires, the police sirens – and later, the gunfire – all hit tight to the rhythm of the music, capturing the bracing way that a good song seems to interact with the world around you, purely by accident. By the picture’s midpoint, the songs themselves are getting giggles of recognition, from an audience appreciating the wit of the right needle drop at the right moment (even when it’s a counterintuitive one, like the way Wright uses love scene mainstay Barry White for what is indisputably not a love scene).
The musicality makes our protagonist, the improbably-named Baby (Ansel Elgort), more empathetic; we haven’t all robbed banks, but we’ve all sung and air-drummed along with a favorite song in the car, or put its beat into our step on an afternoon stroll. Baby’s is a life consumed by music – he’s always listening to it, always inside it, maybe even making it. And we’re always in his head, hearing what he hears: not just the songs, but the half-sound when one earbud comes out, how the little wail of his tendinitis (the result of a traumatic childhood injury) creeps up when he removes them both, which he rarely does. It’s a highly subjective experience, this movie, with the filmmaker even resisting the urge to stage killer robbery set pieces, because he’s staying out in the car with his subject.
And Elgort holds the screen well. He’s clearly having a good time, playing cool customer in front of his criminal cohort, shimmying his way through the streets when they’re not looking; he’s an excellent dancer, and not a self-conscious one, which is key. He’s also smart enough to lay back in the scenes designed to let his famous co-stars flex – they’re capturing the jittery intensity of people with “nasal difficulties” trying to top and out-badass each other, and just as the character knows to let them growl and bark, so does the actor. Besides, who wants to get in the way of Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx locking horns?
Foxx is particularly live wire here, putting across a kind of purring menace that occasionally lurks in his characters, but has seldom had such an opportunity to dominate. That menace is a specialty of co-star Kevin Spacey, and he still does it better than just about anybody; when he notes Baby’s new lady love (Lily James) is cute, and flatly adds “Let’s keep it that way,” he doesn’t have to reach for the effect. But it’s not just an empty villain role either – note the way he says, at a key point, “I was in love once,” and nothing else. He just lets it hang there.
Wright’s script snaps with the inside juice of criminal shoptalk, and is full of spiky exchanges and clever gags (there’s a bit with a Michael Myers Halloween mask that I won’t give away, but it’s hard to resist). It’s his first solo screenplay credit since his debut film, clear back in 1995; he first devised Baby Driver around the same time, calling it a film that has “been in my head for 22 years” when it unspooled at SXSW in March. And it’s very much a young man’s movie, for better and for worse – cranked up with dazzlingly high spirits, yet occasionally infused with self-conscious play-acting, a late teenager’s sense of what a cool movie is. Or a romantic one; the relationship between Elgort and James is almost too sweet, and their outcome is very much a 20-year-old’s idea of love (and women), particularly when applied to the not-entirely-successful epilogue.
So in a way, Baby Driver feels more like a show-off first film than his actual first film (or his breakthrough, Shaun of the Dead ); in some ways, it also feels like a step backward, considering the maturity and pathos that made his previous picture, The World’s End, one of his best. Still, you can’t blame a director for wanting to pause his growth and play with his shiny Hollywood toys a bit, and it’s hard to complain much when the result is a picture as bouncy and ebullient as this one.
“Baby Driver” is out Wednesday.