By Joe Hammerschmidt
This almost never happens, but as the credits rolled for the latest Edgar Wright masterpiece “Baby Driver”, I found myself needing to catch my breath. In the moment, I realized just how exhilarating a good cinematic ride can be, when it’s fast, energetic, and runs on its own rhythm. Knowing his work well, particularly his crown jewels, the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), it was easier than last time to feel enwrapped into the energy, and the beat right from that first scene; once it starts, it will not stop. If you’re fortunate enough to experience this picture in a theater with premium reclining seats, they’ll come to fair use.
The titular “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) wears his nickname like a vice, tight and in control. Playing the role of loyal getaway driver to a rotating group of professional thieves in the underground of Atlanta, led by the oddball Doc (Kevin Spacey), his personal principles take higher precedent the closer he is to breaking even with his boss following an earlier disaster. Between the car accident that murdered his parents and left him with crippling tinnitus; his reliance on multiple iPods to drown out the ringing, much to the dismay of his associates; his ailing adoptive grandfather, to whom he winds up risking most through his sprees; and a surprise romance with diner clerk Debora (Lily James), Baby questions his own beliefs in hope of escaping with his potential love, only to be lured back in by Doc’s influence.
How music is used in this film may not be considered revolutionary by any standards, as the motif is nothing new to fanatics of Wright’s work, yet the flavor is distinct with each song creating a moment of pure immersion with the viewer. I won’t give away every single one, yet be prepared to tap either a finger or toes during the opening credits; a combination of an appropriate song with Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”, matching choreography, timed-with-lyrics signage, and one of many effective single-tracking shots championed by DP Bill Pope (his second with Wright, following World’s End). That moment is simply one of 32 that make up the film’s soundtrack, one that will hopefully be looked to by later students of film for inspiration.
Keeping the music in the foreground, the look and style of the Magic City’s crime market never appeared as menacing until Pope had the time to drive around and seek out the best light to work with. The way the music cuts with the action and vice-versa, beats lining up perfectly with even the smallest of movements, say a finger tap, makes up only 1/3 of the formula. Wright and his cinematographer build a simple playground for chaos to either reign, slip in and out of sight, or completely drive off the lane, dependent on what the moment sounds like. Hearing “Hocus Pocus” (an iconic long-form 70s rock instrumental) in time with the pivotal third-act heist sequence, utilizes all three listed, meshed together, while staying natural in conveying every emotion possible: laughter, dread, and even irony.
And then there are the faces, the individuals centering around Baby’s life while working around his existential crises. Doc considers Baby his good luck charm, the steady rock that completes the success quantification in all his ops, yet his revolving door of lackeys tend to disagree with the driver’s coping strategies. They’ll often resort to making too much fun at his expense. If one were to rank them all, Jon Hamm’s Buddy, would be right at the top without objection; a charismatic Wall Street shark, with both smarts and a stronger bite. His wife, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) has the mama bear flair down pat, caring yet still capable of mauling a face on occasion. Bats (Jamie Foxx) is the reactive one; if he’s not already mentally psyched, he goes to extreme lengths to ensure his mind can handle the rough BS, in his words “taking back what’s rightfully his” like a common reprieve, and destroy those dumb enough to prevent him from accomplishing such; look for a significant musician’s cameo that brilliantly illustrates this point. Jon Bernthal, Flea (still with Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Lanny Joon fill out the robbers’ roster, yet their screen time is grossly limited and they struggle to leave as much of an impression as Foxx and Hamm would in their respective scenes.
What wins out most, however, is the almost Bonnie and Clyde-esque dynamic between the shy Debora and the multi-faceted Baby. James derives a bright-eyed whimsy in extracting the fragile nerves of her mysterious crush, the only one who could. Elgort’s the dreamy-eyed shy kid who’s making a tidal wave of trauma; the wide-bearing music selection stemmed as far back as the very first iPod, when his parents gifted him with it for Xmas, only worsening the pain considering the deadly accident came a short time after. Yet as a sentimental catalyst, it’s easy to draw upon. The pair bond nicely over songs involving names, with Debora easily impressed with the long list of songs to incorporate “Baby” in the title.
Wright plays the romance card surprisingly more effectively than he does the in-your-face action card, keeping the overall vibe more grounded compared to his prior triumphs. Shaun, Pilgrim, World’s End are all examples of chaos left to crumble, often for the better; the thing we sacrifice is losing our connection to reality for a short time. Dependent on the subject matter, it’ll work. With Baby Driver, Wright takes the chance to present something closer to life, more realistic. With the promise of love conquering in the face of danger and poor morals, the guy who once timed a Queen song to clubbing mindless zombies has found his sweetheart side, balancing the violent conflict of any early Tarantino pic, and to a smaller extent Wright’s own earlier work, with a tender emotional backstory that can hit all the right notes, and then some. Couple that with the most fitting soundtrack that matches everything around it, not just Baby’s own inner monologue, and what remains is just an amazing ride that will take you from 0 to 60 faster than can be counted. With Edgar Wright handling the manual stick shift, anticipate nothing less. (A)
“Baby Driver” opens Wednesday at most area theaters; rated R for violence and language throughout; 113 minutes.