Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Sky Ferreira, Flea, Big Boi, Paul Williams
Running Time: 113 min
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
For anyone ever wondering what would happen if Quentin Tarantino made a musical, Baby Driver is just about the closest we're going to get. While it's instead directed by Edgar Wright, it's impossible to watch without thinking his fingerprints are, at least in some small way, all over it. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering this is likely a lot less chatty and self-referential than his version would be. But the common ground they both find is in the music, which in this case is literally and figuratively driving the action forward at a breakneck pace. From the opening title sequence, during which our music-loving protagonist is lip syncing and dancing down the street to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," we know we're in for something a little different. And that's exactly what's delivered, as this story about a quiet getaway driver in over his head is underlined with car chase scenes that look and feel like real car chases, mostly because they are.
The astonishing contradiction within Wright's overstylized, hyped-up universe is that it's grounded in a reality that feels authentic, even when it seems ridiculous. And there's plenty of ridiculousness. But it's never boring, as its nearly two hour run time flies by, until arriving at a third act that isn't quite as inspired as what preceded it, but undeniably exciting nonetheless. The calm center of this violent storm is Ansel Elgort's charismatic but low-key performance as the title character, officially marking his arrival as a major star, but more importantly, a talented actor worth watching.
Breaking one of the key rules of a lead character, we watch as everything happens to and around him, until he realizes his survival depends upon taking action. Despite a myriad of influences, Baby Driver never feels like a replication of anything, and that's praiseworthy in itself, proving a productive soundtrack can do more than provide background noise. Here, it's the foundation on which the entire film is built. Inseparable from the first frame, the music informs the action and that action returns the favor ten-fold.
Essentially a good kid who made a dumb choice, Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver in Atlanta, behind the wheel for a crew of armed robbers assembled by criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), who he's indebted to after stealing one of his cars. He's also really skilled wheel man expertly helping Doc's gangs continually evade capture after some big robberies. Blasting the music from his many iPods to drown out the humming in his ears caused by a childhood car accident that killed his parents, Baby anticipates his last job may finally be on the horizon.
Being free from his his debt could offer Baby the opportunity to properly look after and provide for his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), as well as cut ties with a seedy criminal underworld of thugs like the impulsively dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx), former banker turned robber Buddy (Jon Hamm), and his wife, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). And it's just when he appears to be done and grows closer to friendly diner waitress Debora (Lily James), he realizes there is no "out" with Doc. Or at least until he helps pull off one last big heist. But with volatile personalities and unanticipated complications involved, he'll have to make a choice between protecting those he loves and escaping alive.
For as comical and clever the dialogue is and the amount of fun, thrilling high-speed car chases there are, it's surprising just how much of the film is driven by fear and tension. The baby-faced hero has unwillingly entered a world in which he just doesn't fit and has been thrown into for reasons we know are at least partially his doing. There's a fragility to the character as Baby silently takes in Doc's carefully orchestrated plans and his makeshift band of thugs do their best to intimidate and bully him at every turn. It doesn't work. Or does it? We're not quite sure, which is one of the more intriguing aspects of the character, who makes mixtapes out of conversations and basks in the classic R&B pumping through his earbuds . There's a part of you thinking he must be scared out of his mind, while entirely different aspect to Elgort's performance is still suggesting this kid's been through too much in his life to even care.
Wright crafts a clever backstory, sporadically shown through flashbacks, that hints at this and offers up an effective explanation for his ipod obsession, while also working really well as tech nostalgia for viewers. After making gigantic impressions in The Fault in our Stars and even Men, Women and Children, Elgort takes it to a new level here, which isn't to suggest he does anything that's over the top. It's just the opposite, as so much of what he conveys is through silence and facial expressions, with most of his talking being with Debora, as they bond over their shared musical tastes. There's an easy rapport between the two that's never too schmaltzy or eye-rolling, and while it's easy to argue Lily James is saddled with a limited girlfriend role, at least she excels at it, sharing great chemistry with Elgort and becoming more important to the narrative as the film wears on.
Jon Hamm is given his best and most substantial big screen showcase to date as the smooth but dangerous Buddy, playing way against type in a villainous role he probably couldn't wait to sink his teeth into. Jamie Foxx is suitably scary, unpredictable and intimidating as Bats, a certifiable, button-pushing lowlife you just can't wait to see get his. There's also a fantastic cameo by Paul Williams (yes, THAT Paul Williams) that should have fans of his grinning from ear-to-ear at its sheer lunacy.
While it feels strange eulogizing the career of a still living actor, there's no avoiding the giant elephant in the room that is Kevin Spacey, since this could be the last time we see him featured this prominently in a top project. Luckily, it's a good one that reminds us how skilled he is at played sleazy schemers in positions of power. Make what you will of that statement, but supporting roles like this won't be nearly as interesting without him in them. The scenes wheres he faces off with Elgort are among the most memorable and the characters' working arrangement doesn't go completely as predicted.
The real star here are the chase scenes and soundtrack highlighted by a seemingly endless stream of 70's hits and non-hits. When the plot's heists go exactly according to plan, it's a joy to watch the mechanics of it all unfold, but when it doesn't, that's when things really get fun and the excitement comes in seeing the characters scramble and improvise. That's essentially the entire last act, highlighted by a sequence in which Wright brings the same propulsive energy and seamless stunt choreography of the car chases to one that takes place entirely on foot. That's impressive, but you get the feeling that little of it would be possible without that soundtrack, which ends up not only being the co-lead and star, but so much more a part of Baby's DNA than any superficial trait a lesser filmmaker would have concocted for him.