What is it about music and moving vehicles? Anyone who's ever toiled over the perfect road-trip playlist or fantasized about starring in a music video while driving to the supermarket should get a big kick out of Baby Driver. Making a (partial) genre transition from comedy to action, writer-director Edgar Wright winks at the silliness of our fantasies of a perfectly scored life while indulging them in high style.
Plenty of action films have leaned heavily on propulsive soundtracks. But none has been quite so explicit or self-aware about it as the tale of Baby (Ansel Elgort), a baby-faced (of course) young orphan forced into a life of crime. When we first meet him, he's manning the getaway car for a bank heist, wearing his work uniform of shades and earbuds. As the gunmen exit the vehicle, Baby cues up the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — and, in a feat of choreography and editing, the action proceeds to obey the music's rhythm.
Baby's iPod is practically a physical appendage, and we soon learn why. Stricken with tinnitus by the same car crash that killed his parents, he rarely speaks and uses music to drown the ringing in his ears. These peculiarities don't bother the criminal mastermind (Kevin Spacey) whose bidding Baby must do to pay off a hefty debt.
When we're told that the next heist is Baby's "last job," we instantly know things will go south. And when we meet Bats (Jamie Foxx), who has a big mouth and a habit of yanking off Baby's earbuds and critiquing his song choices, we know who will send them there. Baby is less rageful than the similar man-child Ryan Gosling played in Drive, but he knows how to drive both defensively and offensively.
Wright is a master of visual humor and comic pastiche; each of the films in his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End) parodies a distinct Hollywood genre while telling a solid story in its own right. Part of the charm of those UK-made movies is the clash between the (relative) grubby realness of the settings and actors and the slick artificiality of the clichés they spoof.
Baby Driver, by contrast, stays in the world of self-conscious artifice, where every low-lifer is endowed with movie-star looks, a colorful shtick or a funny tattoo. Sometimes that's a good source of wink-wink comedy, as when Bats starts needling too-glamorous fellow gangster Buddy (Jon Hamm) about being a fallen Wall Streeter. Sometimes the tropes just feel uninspired; Baby's romance with a pure, innocent diner waitress (Lily James) is sweet but predictable.
The characters are static and iconic, the plot pretty standard post-Quentin Tarantino gangster fare. It's the incidentals that make Baby Driver something special, from the creatively conceived, meticulously scored car chases to the running joke about people's names and their use in songs. One extended take in which Baby makes a coffee run is a blissful mini-movie in itself, a perfect musical number in the spirit of old Hollywood, though no one warbles a note on-screen.
Baby has a habit of surreptitiously recording hard-boiled conversations and then sampling them in his own catchy compositions. Like Wright, he has a magpie's penchant for bringing disparate pieces together, finding unexpected beauty in tough talk and insults. ("Was He Slow?" is the name of one track.) Pastiche and collage may not be the most lauded of art forms, but this director uses them to take us on a sublime ride.