Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, CJ Jones, Jon Bernthal, Lanny Joon, Flea, Sky Ferreira, Lance Palmer, Brogan Hall
MPAA Rating: (for violence and language throughout)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 6/28/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 27, 2017
Even before the opening credits of Baby Driver begin, writer/director Edgar Wright may have killed the concept of the car chase for any filmmaker who will attempt one in the future. The sequence should, at least, force filmmakers to consider a lesson from this film: Just because a certain type of sequence is expected in an action movie, that doesn't mean a director can't change the routine, look at and present it in a different way, and, most importantly, have fun with it.
Fun is Wright's ultimate goal here, and the film is loads of it, mostly because he isn't content with simply going through the motions of the standard-issue action film. When presented with a car chase, most modern filmmakers seem to go for routine, hoping that the presence of action alone is enough. The more ambitious among them try to compensate with spectacle—some over-the-top stunt or a variation of the car chasing/being chased by an unlikely vehicle.
Wright isn't content with either option. He wants to redefine the conventions here, and to a certain extent, he has succeeded.
There's nothing unique about what we actually see within the chase (save for a neat shell game involving a pursuing helicopter, a tunnel, and a pair of cars that look similar to the pursued vehicle). The terrain of city streets and highways is nothing new. As for the vehicular participants, it's one car being chased by an assortment of police cruisers, and the angles from which we watch all of it are familiar. What does any of that matter when a film finds a way to make us look at a clichéd sequence from an entirely new perspective?
That new perspective is the way the film looks like an action movie, filled with car chases and fights and shoot-outs, while behaving in a way more akin to a musical (For further evidence of the musical's influence, one need only look to the opening credits, which has the hero dancing around the city, as an assortment of visual gags highlight certain lyrics). After our hero does a little seated dance of his own (tapping on the steering wheel and doors, while adjusting the windshield wipers to match the rhythm), the staging and editing of the opening chase is closer to a choreographed dance number.
The car moves to the beat. Wright, working alongside editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, cuts to new angles with the rhythm of the song. The tune's slower bits bring with it an inherent tension, as the shots linger a bit longer, and its eventual crescendo slowly promises the enthusiastic release of returning to the beat-driven action.
It's a thrill to watch a director so daringly, confidently, and deftly play with form, particularly within the mold of a genre that easily can bring out the lazier side of filmmakers (from going through the motions to having no concern for an audience's capacity for comprehending what's happening on screen). That Wright has concocted a solid story, which serves to examine a quirky but vicious underworld inhabited by a collection of offbeat characters, to go along with his action-musical-hybrid experiment makes the film an even more impressive success.
The story revolves around a character nicknamed Baby (an effortless charming Ansel Elgort), who has been caught up in a robbery enterprise run by Doc (an acutely deadpan Kevin Spacey), after the kid stole a car filled with the crime lord's "merchandise." After the opening robbery, Baby has one more job before he has paid off his debt to Doc, but Doc isn't the kind of man who lets his best driver get away from him. Meanwhile, Baby meets Debora (a bright-faced Lily James), a waitress at a local diner, and falls for her on account of her love of music (She regrets that there are only two songs about her name, especially when she learns that this stranger's name is in practically every song).
Baby's own feelings toward music go a couple of steps beyond love. He needs it to focus on anything, on account of a car accident during his childhood that killed his parents (including a mother who was a waitress for her day job but really wanted to become a singer) and left him with a crippling case of tinnitus. He almost always has on at least one earbud, plugged into one of his assortment of digital music players (one for every mood or occasion).
That's the main hook for the character. It's one that allows for Wright's diverse music compilation (from soul to rock of various kinds to Motown to jazz), serving as a near-constant soundtrack accompanying scenes that would otherwise seem routine. Instead, the planning for an armored truck robbery has Doc looking a bit like an orchestra conductor and the gunshots of a shootout are extra punctuation on the percussion to a familiar instrumental.
If it sounds primarily like a gimmick, it is, but that doesn't make it any less potent in the effect. It's more than that, too. Despite his relative silence (around anyone who isn't Debora or his deaf foster father, played by CJ Jones—meaning the joke is that he's at his most talkative in sign language), Baby becomes a fairly rich character, with the music not only drowning out the ringing in his ears but also distancing him from the sometimes-nasty business in which he's involved (At first, we think a moment in the opening sequence, in which Baby backs up his car, is just part of his dance routine, but we later learn that it's him moving away from the sight of violence—a reminder of his abusive father).
Wright has filled in the rest of supporting cast with actors doing some strong character work. Jon Hamm and Eiza González play Buddy and Darling, a pair of Bonnie and Clyde wannabes who treat grand larceny like foreplay. Jamie Foxx plays Bats, the requisite psychopath of the group, although he performs the role with enough restraint that the character is genuinely both funny and a threat in equal measure.
The film's experiment doesn't hold up for its entirety, as the third act feels far more conventional, but by that point, Baby Driver has developed its characters and its story enough to keep it moving. Besides, Wright has maintained such a consistent creative momentum until that point that it hardly matters. This film is a whole lot of fun in an inventive package.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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