Director Edgar Wright’s films have been riffs on everything from the zombie movie (Shaun of the Dead) to cop pictures (Hot Fuzz) and video games (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and each film has sought out the comedic aspect of each genre. But his latest, Baby Driver – which also happens to be his best – is the first film I can recall that shoots an action film in the manner of a musical.
Characters slide across car roofs, guns pop, explosions occur and car chases result in vehicles spinning around corners – and all in time to the film’s extensive soundtrack, which features everyone from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Martha and the Vandellas to Young MC and Focus. There are only two sequences during which a character is actually singing – but, in this case, it’s the lead character, Baby (Ansel Elgort) singing along to pop nuggets that are playing on his iPod. It’s worth noting that it was these two scenes alone – which come early in the picture – that made me doubt whether the film would succeed.
But succeed it does. Baby Driver is easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie this summer and it’s among the year’s best thus far. And one of the elements that makes it such a joy is Wright’s deep knowledge of film language. The characters move, talk, walk and skip across the sidewalk as if they know they’re in a movie. As I’ve seen it pointed out, the characters also imagine themselves as how they – and, to an extent, we – might come across if their (or our) lives were a movie and scored to music.
Take, for instance, a sequence during which Baby has to do an errand at a junkyard. He sees a piece of scrap on the ground and, in slow motion, waltzes over to it and kicks it to the tune of the Commodores’ “Easy.” And it’s exactly how Baby likely imagines such a movement would appear in a movie or music video.
Baby is a good soul in a bad business. As a child, he was in a car accident that claimed the lives of his parents. His mother is played by Sky Ferreira, whose love of music infected Baby. Left with tinnitus, Baby must listen to an endless loop of pop songs on his iPod, while acting as the – very talented – driver of a series of heists orchestrated by a man named Doc (Kevin Spacey) and carried out by a variety of thugs, all of whom are more sinister than the next. They are played with aplomb by Jon Hamm, Jaime Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Flea and Jon Bernthal.
But since this is an action thriller of the old school variety, there’s a girl – and it’s easy to see why Baby falls for her. Debora (Lily James) works as a waitress at a diner that Baby frequents and she looks like she just walked out of Twin Peaks’ Double R. The two of them bond over music and there’s an instant spark. Baby also lives with an elderly man named Joseph (CJ Jones), who is deaf and mute. After Baby takes part in his last heist, he is pulled back in again by Doc and his participation is solely concerned with the safety of his adopted parent and new girlfriend.
Many movies try to be all things to all people and fail. Baby Driver aims to be many things and it all comes together. The film’s script is loaded with zingers, but also dialogue that deepens our understanding of the characters. The picture turns violent towards its end and is filled with thrilling car chase sequences, but it’s also often very funny. But it’s the use of music and the choreography of the actors that makes it such a wonder. There’s a shootout between the group of thugs with whom Baby is working and some arms dealers that involves especially impressive timing between the violence and the music.
This is the type of movie that cries out to be a sleeper. In a summer filled mostly with movies that could best be described as focus-group corporate entities that deliver exactly what they advertise, Baby Driver is wholly original. Yes, I know the plot – which involves heists and a romance between a criminal trying to go straight to impress a young woman – doesn’t reinvent the cinematic wheel, but what often makes a movie special is the how, not the what. And Wright’s film has how to spare. Baby, I love your way.