After being coerced into working for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey), a young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail with a team of misfit bank robbers.
Five films in, there's very few directors working today with mainstream, audience-friendly films that have managed to maintain a distinctive vision the way Edgar Wright has. Colin Trevorrow, for example, jumped from smart sci-fi dramedy with Safety Not Guaranteed to effective Spielbergian blockbuster with Jurassic World. Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Gareth Edwards walked off the set of smaller films and onto major tentpoles and lost some of their unique edge - either through studio edicts or the pressures of working with a massive budget. Edgar Wright, however, managed to sidestep all of this when he left Marvel's Ant-Man over creative differences and, instead, opted to make Baby Driver instead.
Although Baby Driver isn't Wright's first American film - the overlooked Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World holds that title - this is by far his most original and, at the same time, very much borrowing from both his own films and films he's referenced in the past. The film opens with a break-neck fast car chase that has all the texture and feel of a Roadrunner cartoon, with a blaring pop soundtrack as the taciturn Ansel Elgort flings the car around the road without breaking a sweat or saying a word. From there, we're introduced to the main cast - Kevin Spacey as a fast-talking businessman-cum-crime boss, Jon Hamm as a well-meaning robber, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal as two criminals who take an immediate disliking to Ansel Egort's character and Lily James as the love interest.
For the most part, the music is deployed in lieu of dialogue or emotional content. When Baby's happy, the music is upbeat and full of life and we see him dancing about his apartment - but when he's focused and ready to drive, his specific soundtrack works to how he feels and moves. Wright's directorial efforts are much a part of the film as anything he's done before, and this can either be grating or gratifying - depending on how you view his previous work. The constant song changes, the frantic editing and camera moves, the knowing jokes and winks to the camera is half the film's charm, but it's also its curse.
Wright can't make a film without turning it in on itself. Like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he's riffing on the genre and calling up its greatest hits, placing them carefully like a playlist for Baby's own soundtrack. Yet, for all the love he has for the genres he takes, it's always come at it from a somewhat satirical or knowing angle. The audience is expected to get the significance, rather than allowing for it to be taken at face value. That's fine, of course, because most of Wright's fans will get them and be fine with it - but anyone on the outside might be bewildered. Moreover, some of the artistic flourishes that Wright makes - such as air-dropping in a couple of black-and-white scenes between James and Elgort - feel a little bit hokey and overly earnest. Then again, the film is essentially a musical. How can any musical be anything but hokey and overly earnest?
For the most part, the performances all work well in the face of it all. Elgort plays Baby Driver like a PG version of Ryan Gosling's Driver, Kevin Spacey rattles off his lines like some '30s gangster and Jon Hamm is every bit as slick and assured as you'd expect, bantering off his gangster moll Eiza Gonzalez with ease. Jamie Foxx, meanwhile, shares the same role in the plot as Jon Bernthal and neither gets a decent running. Lily James, meanwhile, has the wide-eyed and well-meaning girlfriend routine down pat. Wright's snappy dialogue works for everyone except Elgort, who does feel like he's possibly been miscast in the role. Still, it's another wise strong cast with a script to match their talents.
Overall, Baby Driver is stylish, assuredly made and with a cracking soundtrack blasting over it. Compared to other driving-focused blockbusters out this year, this one has soul, rock, pop and a bit of doo-wop as well.