A film review by Craig J. Koban July 7, 2017

BABY DRIVER jjjj

2017, R, 113 mins.

 

Ansel Elgort as Baby  /  Lily James as Debora  /  Kevin Spacey as Doc  /  Eiza González as Darling  /  Jon Bernthal as Griff  /  Jon Hamm as Buddy  /  Jamie Foxx as Bats

Written and directed by Edgar Wright

BABY DRIVER shows writer/director Edgar Wright at the absolute zenith of his technical filmmaking prowess.  After taking a far-too-long sabbatical from his last film, 2013's underrated THE WORLD'S END (the third film in his self-anointed Cornetto Trilogy, comprised of 2007's HOT FUZZ and 2004's SHAUN OF THE DEAD), the British filmmaker has made a triumphant return in this joyously energized, audaciously crafted, and robustly creative heist action thriller.  

One of the many miracles of BABY DRIVER is that it takes a well worn narrative (criminal going on one last job before going straight) and infuses a-throw-caution-to-the-wind freshness of spirit and approach that makes it feel revitalizing new.  That, and Wright's film has the classical elegance of works of old to match its highly self-aware modern age aesthetic trappings.  It's been often said that genre originality is all but dead in Hollywood, but BABY DRIVER proves this sentiment wrong.

This also might be the very first action film that I can recall that has the look and feel of a musical...minus the characters breaking out into spontaneous song (although some do lip synch in it from time to time).   We've all seen countless films before involving car chases, foot chases, and gun battles.  We've also all seen countless films before that have used classic rock and pop tunes on their soundtracks.  BABY DRIVER contains all of these obligatory elements that have been film staples for decades.  Yet, what Wright does with them is on a whole other level of fiendish inventiveness.  Most directors, for example, simplistically use music as background filler (and to sell soundtracks).  BABY DRIVER utilizes music to actually punctuate and frequently dictate editorial choices and action and dialogue flow.  That's special.  Wright pairs his musical choices and masterfully marries them to precise action beats on screen, and he does so in a beautifully organic manner that never feels forced.  This is the closest we'll perhaps ever have to a film becoming a living and breathing mixtape. 

 

 

The script - also penned by Wright - is deceptively lean and simple, one that both adheres to genre troupes while at the same time subverting them with atypically rich characters and crackerjack dialogue.  It also contains one humdinger of an opening action sequence, one that fully establishes the stylistic tenor of the entire film.  In it we are introduced to "Baby" - that's B-A-B-Y - (in a star making performance by Ansel Elgort), a miraculously gifted getaway driver that has remarkable dexterity behind the wheel despite the fact that he has music constantly blaring in ears via his iPod's ear buds.  He's motoring off a gang of bank robbers after a one particular heist: Buddy (John Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the short fused Griff (Jon Bernthal).  Kicking off with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms", this tour de force chase sequence has Baby skillfully and effortlessly eluding police through the streets of Atlanta, bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic and obstacles, and seemingly everything from his POV in the scene is edited smoothly together and in tandem with the precise rhythm of the music he listens to.  It's one of the great introductory action scenes of the movies.   

From here we learn a bit more about these respective characters, but Wright's spare scripting shows great discipline in not spilling all of the details about them too early on.  We discover that the mastermind behind this robbery is Doc (Kevin Spacey, in quietly menacing Spacey mode) and that the fresh faced and innocent looking Baby is not a career criminal, but rather is working as Doc's driver to pay off old debts.  Coerced somewhat against his will, Baby decides to do one last job for Doc to secure his financial and literal freedom, but it takes multiple turns for the worse when the new team he drives for - including the loose cannoned Bats (a bat-shit deranged Jamie Foxx) - are unpredictably violent, leaving Baby wanting to retire for good.  He's driven towards a life of normalcy because of a newfound relationship he has in his life with a kindly waitress that he meets while at his favorite restaurant, Debora (Lily James).  Just when things look like they're settling down for Baby and Debora, along comes Doc back into Baby's world forcing him through threats of bodily harm to him and his new girlfriend to help him with the biggest job of his career. 

Wright has always been a director that's been infatuated with colorful visuals, breakneck editing, and, yes, sly music choices to embellish his entire film catalogue.  BABY DRIVER takes his confident process one large logical step further in the manner that he meticulously engineers and unleashes scene after scene that skillfully choreographs action with precise musical accompaniment.  As for the film's blistering car chases themselves, one thing that Wright nails is the fluidity of movement within the frame, not to mention reality based physics, the latter of which seems to have been altogether forgotten, say, in the FAST AND FURIOUS films.  There's a tactile and authentic weight to what's happening inside and outside of Baby's car as it flees away from pursuers: you feel like you're in there with the other criminal lowlifes.  Adding music that's specifically timed to the most minute of edits gives BABY DRIVER - as previously mentioned - the grace of a Hollywood musical of yesteryear.   

Now, the reason behind all of the music that permeates this film is wonderfully novel and straightforward: Baby has severe and crippling tinnutus due to a childhood car accident, so he constantly listens to music to block out its debilitating effects.  He has multiple iPods in his pockets that he utilizes for just the right proper moment.  In short, when Baby's driving his working to the soundtrack of his entire life, and his job as a getaway driver is made all the more ironic considering that his condition is the product of a tragic car accident.  Baby is no victim, though, as Ansel Elgort relays in a surprisingly layered and smoothly commanding performance, which works against the type of stereotypical cardboard cut-out characters that usually populate these heist films.  The villains of BABY DRIVER are also wonderfully drawn and realized as well.  John Hamm, so good for so many years on TV's MAD MEN, plays his lowlife with equal parts blistering intensity and level headed pragmatism, which makes him unpredictably dangerous.  Spacey is perfectly in his wheelhouse as his deadpan delivering underground kingpin, as is Foxx, who plays arguably the film's most darkly humorous and frighteningly dangerous hoodlum.   

Even with resoundingly well defined character arcs and thankless performances, I think that BABY DRIVER marginally fizzles out a bit with the underlining romance between James' waitress and Elgort's criminal looking to come clean (Wright never seems to find a plausible rationale as to why Debora would be willing to so casually place herself at Baby's side amidst all the danger he eventually places them both in...especially after what appears to be a few dates).  That, and Debora feels more like a plot device that a fully fleshed out character.  Momentum and pacing sometimes drags in a few sections, which becomes more evident during the film's third act, which unfortunately runs a bit too long for its own good and seems to have a tricky time bringing the film to a sense of finality.  Just when you think that BABY DRIVER is coming to an end, it plods along through more multiple endings, each one which could have provided solid closure.

But you know what...I think that I'm needlessly being hypercritical here, because BABY DRIVER is a glorious celebration of cinematic ingenuity from Wright and is a rare breed of summer entertainment where every fiber of a director's esoteric fingerprints can't be felt throughout it.   Despite its foibles, I nevertheless found myself being euphorically swept up by the mad and infectious genius of this whole enterprise.  It's also a highly unique caper film that manages to impart a much needed dosage of adrenaline induced cleverness and slyness to a genre that's frankly getting repetitively stale and lethargic.  Action thrillers are so dime-a-dozen these days that overwhelming sensations of deja vu settle in with nearly every one that I endure.  I rarely like to use review descriptors akin to "It's unlike anything you've seen before," but that moniker fits BABY DRIVER.  Plus, it's outrageously entertaining to sit through.  The summer film season - minus a few key examples - has been one of crushing disappointments, but BABY DRIVER is a hypodermic needle to its heart to jumpstart it back to life.  

It may also prompt you to reacquaint  yourself with your dust covered iPod. 

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