Edgar Wright returns with a thrilling, stylish teenage fantasy, and a hero that mashes Steve McQueen, Edward Cullen and, uh, Flume.
By Nick Milligan
In the music video for Mancunian electronic duo Mint Royale’s 2003 single ‘Blue Song’, Mighty Boosh star Noel Fielding is a getaway driver, grooving behind the wheel in all his glam-punk glory. He’s killing time while his accomplices, Julian Barrett and Nick Frost amongst them, rob a bank. The Mint Royale song was by no means a worldwide smash, but the video’s director, Edgar Wright, had both a great idea and a future in Hollywood.
Fast forward 14 years and the opening scene of Wright’s all-star crime caper Baby Driver seems familiar. We meet our young titular hero behind the wheel of a car, tapping and singing in kinetic unison to the eccentric jam ‘Bellbottoms’, which opens the 1994 Jon Spencer Blues Explosion record Orange. He bobs and weaves and taps the steering wheel in perfect rhythmic harmony.
But unlike the Mint Royale video, the action of Baby Driver continues well beyond this song’s final notes. Now we get to see the fleshed-out getaway driver narrative that was percolating while Wright’s ingenious and subversive comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz propelled him into mainstream American cinema.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a quietly spoken getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an Atlanta mastermind crook who plans heists and engages guns for hire to execute them. Amongst this changing cast of armed robbers are Buddy (Jon Hamm), his wife Darling (Eiza González) and the volatile Bats (Jamie Foxx). Baby holds his own amongst these rough individuals, not flinching when the more unhinged heavies quiz him on why he won’t take those damn headphones out of his ears (music drowns out his tinnitus), but he’s not cut from the same cloth as these bad folk. Baby’s against violence and, as we quickly learn, is only working for Doc because he’s indebted to him financially. Away from his life of crime, our brooding lead cares for his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster father.
Baby’s priorities quickly shift from getaway driving when he meets cute diner waitress Debora (Lily James). The two of them share a dream to hit the highway and never look back. Now more than ever he wants out of this underworld and to escape a future he knows is ultimately doomed. But Baby is Doc’s prized driver and these criminal ties will prove far harder to escape than a flock of police cars.
Despite eventually finding its way into some fun action violence, this very slick film, with its supreme vintage soundtrack and retro nods, is custom-built for the teen demographic. Playful and very funny mayhem is a specialty of Wright’s, but in Baby Driver he demonstrates great restraint to keep this ride semi-suitable for a younger audience. This is a romantic teen dream wrapped in a crime plot.
“The romance between Baby and Debora speaks to the most primal of Twilight-esque teenage desires: Baby is “superhuman” in his driving abilities, mysterious, broken, emotionally closed, a bad boy with a heart of gold.”
If you’re out of the pop culture loop, you may not be aware that Elgort is kind of a big deal. And the producers of Baby Driver seem abundantly aware of his aloof charm and play to his strengths – Baby’s character is heartthrob haute couture. Elgort’s star turn in the love story phenomenon The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series rocketed him to Robert Pattinson-post-Twilight levels of gushing adoration. He boasts a humble 8 million followers on Instagram and his inclusion in this fun flick (or, perhaps, vehicle?) guarantees it a level of box office sales. Oh, and Elgort also has a pop career.
Baby is the Edward Cullen version of Ryan “Baby Goose” Gosling’s unnamed driver hero in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and he’s candy cotton compared to Ryan O’Neal’s steely eyed badass in Walter Hill’s 1978 crime flick The Driver, to which Drive and Baby Driver both owe a debt of gratitude (Hill even has a cameo in Wright’s film).
The romance between Baby and Debora speaks to the most primal of Twilight-esque teenage desires: Baby is “superhuman” in his driving abilities, mysterious, broken, emotionally closed, a bad boy with a heart of gold. He’s done terrible things but wants to change. He lovingly and patiently cares for his elderly foster dad and seems locked in a perpetual state of Hollywood choreography, flitting down the street to fetch coffee with the fleet-footedness of Gene Kelly. Baby even makes beats in his bedroom – and it seems strangely appropriate that the millennial answer to Steve McQueen share skills with Flume.
A scene in which Debora finally experiences Baby’s abilities behind the wheel echoes of that odd Twilight sequence in which Bella saddles up on Edward’s back and rides him through the trees. When Baby screeches to a halt after this vehicular deflowering, Debora’s flushed complexion suggests she may have just climaxed. Or was at least very close.
Rusted-on Wright fans will no doubt want more from the man responsible for something affectionately called “The Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy. And those fans will be disappointed (unless there’s an R-rated director’s cut floating around out there). But for all its pandering to the teen dollar, Baby Driver is still an immensely enjoyable romp and Wright’s distinctive style is very much apparent. There’s an infectious rhythm to his filmmaking: those rapid-fire cutaways, the sharp wit, the visual flair and honed cinematic vocabulary. It’s all orchestrated with aplomb. There’s long takes, white-knuckled car chases and genuinely funny dialogue (the Michael Myers gag is an instant classic). Only a director with Wright’s finesse can make the tried and tested car chase sequence seem fresh, comprehendible and exciting. The opening escape set piece is synergistic feat of both camera and car, an old-school cat and mouse chase unburdened by CGI.
The onscreen reality Wright crafts in this latest effort is not as wildly heightened as that of his inventive 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but it still deals in a language that’s not quite cemented in the real world (notice the spinning uniform colours of the clothes in the laundromat?). It celebrates sheen over grit. In this sense, Wright is something of a classicist. You sense his ambition to create something memorable. Something rewatchable. Something cinematic. While it’s too early to tell, in Baby he may have created this generation’s Ferris Bueller or Maverick. While not as precocious as those two characters, the stoic Baby embodies the quiet confidence and dogged determination of most iconic movie heroes.
Wright’s also aware of how powerful a well selected tune can be, and he’s got the bases loaded in Baby Driver. The aforementioned opening sequence might do for ‘Bellbottoms’ what Wayne’s World did for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Indeed the whole soundtrack speaks to Wright’s musical tastes, making pointed use of a deep Queen cut, ‘Brighton Rock’, from their virile 1974 rock album Sheer Heart Attack. He then raises the bar a notch by using the greatest prog-rock masterpiece of all-time, ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Dutch ’70s juggernaut Focus, to score a thrilling chase sequence in which Baby unsurprisingly demonstrates an uncanny knack for parkour. It’s the kind of playlist that would get Wright invited back to any scenester soirée: The Damned, Jonathan Richman, Blur, Beck and T. Rex.
Another tasty inclusion in Baby Driver is composer and sometimes actor Paul Williams, whose slight stature appears as an arms dealer called The Butcher. Williams wrote ‘The Rainbow Connection’ for Kermit the Frog (amongst hundreds of other cinematic works), and was the arch villain of Brian De Palma’s dazzling 1974 cult gem Phantom of the Paradise. This is no random piece of casting – it’s a film geek’s welcome indulgence. Wright has form in this department, memorably approaching Wicker Man star Edward Woodward in Hot Fuzz, thus paying homage to the classic film that influenced his British cop comedy. The appearance of Williams infers a love of movie musicals – their choreography and usage of music is clearly woven into the DNA of Baby Driver.
Wright’s entire cast is superb. Hamm has his juiciest screen role since The Town in 2010, and González hints at madness simmering just beneath the surface (trainspotters will recognise her as Santanico Pandemonium in the From Dusk Till Dawn TV series). Foxx has never been more wonderfully detestable as powder keg Bats and Spacey gives his usual master class in comic timing. Lily James brings a sweet naturalism to the object of Baby’s affections. Flea is humorous despite very limited screen time and the sublime Sky Ferreira makes her presence felt through prosaic flashbacks.
You can sense that Baby Driver is destined for big things and in this rather squalid period of American cinema, Wright’s auteurist flair and purist ambition puts him head and shoulders above the majority of his peers. The ingredients add up to a delicious recipe, despite their oft calculated nature. The Wright fanboys out there (this reviewer included) will have to wait for the 43-year-old filmmaker to return to R-rated territory (his next film is shaping to be a DreamWorks animation called Shadows). But as far as grievances go, this is a rather selfish one.
In Baby Driver the director might not resist and subvert the tropes of his chosen genre as much as he has in previous outings. This is more a celebration of classic crime movies, spoken in a dialect for younger audiences. But the thrill of the chase transcends age and era, and this is something that Wright clearly understands.