Baby Driver does exactly what it says on the poster, and exhilaratingly so. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young getaway driver for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and is the best at what he does due to playing music while he drives to drown out his tinnitus and focus. He’s been looking for a way out of his life of crime, and falls in love with diner waitress Debora (Lily James) as an upcoming heist threatens to doom their young love.
Baby’s superpower resides in his music. It’s like in Over the Top, how when Stallone’s character flips his hat backwards, he gains an unlikely reserve of supernatural strength. Here though, the level up occurs when Baby puts his headphones in. He ascends to a heightened existence where the rest of the world falls in time to his tunes, he drives like he can see into the future and keeps calm in the tensest of situations. Every edit, every step taken, every gunshot fired is in time to what he is listening to. It’s pure, uncut cinematic cocaine mixed with ecstasy. You’re gonna know if you’re in or out on this film almost immediately.
In the second scene of the film Baby walks around the block to a coffee shop, picks up some coffee and then walks back, all the while acting out his own musical sequence as everything around him coordinates with his earphones – the extras are choreographed just such that they seem like background dancers in a large musical number, street musicians playing various instruments and styles seem to make it fit with Baby’s step. To top it all off, it’s all done in one fluid, seamless take. It’s a nice nod to the musical feel of it, as the classic studio musicals did all their numbers in one take. You’re just sitting there wondering how in the hell they pulled it off.
Ansel Elgort is one of those young talents that’s been on that edge of “Is he good or is he just handsome?” debate since his start, but he really proves his worth and potential here. His innate sense of charm is put to great use here. Buy stock in him. He’s somewhere between Steve McQueen and Gene Kelly here, exhibiting a stone-faced feel of cool, steely demeanor while mixing in a physical exuberance in how he moves around the space while listening to music. Great turns from supporters in Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal round out this excellent cast.
Edgar Wright is a filmmaker driven by influences, but not becoming so beholden to them that he drowns out his own talents. He’s a filmmaker’s filmmaker. He’s a perfect balance of remixing familiar material with his own sensation of originality and creativity. The big influence here are the films of the great Walter Hill – most in particular his 1984 masterpiece Streets of Fire. In my mind, it’s one of the greatest films of the 80s, when I was doing a column about underrated films for another site, I was quick to include it. Hill opens the film with a title card that describes it as “A Rock & Roll Fable” and exists in that heightened state the entire film. Baby Driver can earn the same description – it is a rock & roll fable. It’s a combination of classic American storytelling archetypes that uses the soundtrack to create its own world and inform the cinematic language of the film’s construction. There’s a nice little cameo by Hill near the end to cap off the tribute.
Edgar Wright makes films with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the films that have come before his. He knows exactly where to deviate, where to reference and where to retread. Even when it does go down paths that have been tread many times before, it does so with such joy and zeal. Even though there were only 5 other people at the screening I attended (it was 11 pm on a weeknight, we’ll let it slide) we were all having a blast. It’s one of the most fun times I’ve had at the theater this year.