22nd Jun2017

‘Baby Driver’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Space, John Hamm, Jamie Foxx | Written and Directed by Edgar Wright

baby-driver-new-poster

Edgar Wright’s return to American moviemaking is a more earnest and coherent foray than 2010’s Scott Pilgrim, and it’s a blast of pure positive energy after the relatively dour The World’s End. It opens with the eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort) rocking in his car to The John Spencer Blues Explosion, and it never stops dancing.

Baby is a guy with a permanent Tony Manero swagger. He’s under the wing of gangster boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), who’s both a mentor and gaoler. But Baby has almost paid off his debt and he’s approaching the “one last job” cliché, after which he hopes to hit the road and leave his Atlanta life behind.

Then Baby meets a beautiful waitress, Debora (Lily James). They quickly fall in love. However, the freeway out of the crime world is not clear. Doc needs Baby for yet another last job, working alongside the hyper-macho Buddy (John Hamm) and his scheming girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the batshit crazy Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Can Baby finish his getaway driver stint and find freedom and a future with Debora? Or is he on a road to oblivion?

Life is a playlist for Baby. A childhood accident left him with tinnitus, and now he drowns out the whining through the power of the iPod, wearing earbuds 23 hours a day and moving to the thrum of the music. (He even samples real-world conversations and mixes them into bad hip-hop.) Wright’s penchant for rhythmic editing has reached its natural zenith, and it’s exhilarating.  The British auteur has compiled a soundtrack – and frankly a narrative brevity – of which Tarantino can only dream. And it’s not just the music but the sound design, which is astonishingly detailed and well-choreographed, whether it’s the percussive crack of gunfire, the sad ring of tinnitus, or the intimate singing of wine glasses.

The marketing may have overtones of classic car capers like Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway or Walter Hill’s The Driver, but really Baby Driver is a mashup of the last few decades of modern action movies. It takes in the muscular physicality and mute cool of the ‘70s; the efficiency and the gaudy aesthetic of the ‘80s and ‘90s; and in its hero shaped by formative tragedy, even includes some of the comic book sensibility of the new century. It also feels like the greatest Grand Theft Auto movie never made. (If only Baby could learn from GTA that sometimes the best way to evade the cops is to stay still until the heat is off.)

Elgort is charming and tragic in a way that he totally wasn’t in The Fault in Our Stars, and he has a great chemistry with James, who pulls off blue collar Georgian with effortless aplomb. In supporting roles, Spacey brings gravitas and grades of grey to his deadpan mobster, while Foxx is genuinely funny and menacing.

But Hamm is the real psychotic of the troupe. Unlike Bats, Buddy comes in the guise of a friend, before finally actualising his rage and cruelty. It’s disappointing that the final showdown descends into a mindless macho wrestle, but the storytelling is movingly redeemed in the epilogue.

As ever, Wright is constantly imaginative in deploying his action beats and setpieces. For him, it’s not enough to give us a scuzzy warehouse gun deal, so he delivers it as if a group of bankers are being presented with a fine dining experience. Wright gleefully toys with our expectations throughout, whether it means building to the ultimate car chase, only to show us a foot race; giving us musical intros we think we know but we don’t; or inverting the mentor role by making the kid the carer.

A very welcome stem of morality runs through the movie. It is made abundantly – perhaps excessively – clear that Baby is a boy with a good heart, a million miles from the French Connection-type antihero. Yet, ever the optimist, Wright’s fable is as much a reflection of the countercultural mood of its time as any film from the Nixon era. He is right-on when he proposes that real heroism in the modern age is in decency, accountability and humility – an implicit indictment, perhaps, of today’s prevailing political bleakness.

What a rush this movie is, and what a work of authorship. Employing style in the service of soulfulness, Baby Driver is like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive shot through with the sensibility of a Hollywood musical. It’s absolutely an Edgar Wright joint and it’s an absolute joy, and if it isn’t on my end-of-year best-of list then I’ll eat my driving gloves.

Baby Driver is out in cinemas on 28th June 2017.

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