Baby Driver makes a palpable and committed bid to attain the action sublime. It is a work of testosterone-auteurism that falls short of the sheer aesthetic bravado and emancipatory charge of Mad Max: Fury Road but at least matches The Raid in the top tier of ‘10s action cinema. Its style spreads like a pandemic, sidewinding into the realm of avant-pop music video, turbo-charged but with flickers of whimsy where restive full-throttle motion is contraposed by plateaus of stillness and silence that reveal writer-director-mad-scientist Edgar Wright as a true summoner of the cinema. He conjures the long-dead spirits of style-as-substance ‘70s car thrillers that matched pedal-to-the-medal with moments of melancholy and pensive reflection about the nature of a life lived watching your rear-view-mirror, hurtling at a hundred miles an hour but never truly moving forward.
So go see Baby Driver, really, if you have even the faintest interest in Wright’s oeuvre (a more appropriate word now than ever for a man rekindling genre cinema like a tornado). This new film lacks the comic inspiration of his collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, the latter doubling as his most elegant commentary on male culture’s perpetual state of adolescence masked by pop culture, a thread that thrums through Baby Driver but, I must admit isn’t quite as fully developed). Nor is Baby Driver as frenzied and combustibly outre in its deconstruction of film space and time as Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, which plunged into its comic source material to throttle cinema into a new dimension of feistiness. But Baby Driver’s semi-relative restraint also affords for probably the most perfect of Wright’s patented pop-permutations thus far, a total synthesis of visual and aural registers that considers every moment as one part of a larger whole.
If Wright’s collaborations with Pegg and Frost are essentially commentaries on masculine middle-age, Wright’s two solo features thus far are aimed squarely at adolescents and twenty-somethings trying to balance the bubbling zest and the toxic fallout of modern life increasingly encircled by – and becoming inseparable from – the cool-quotient of pop culture both enlivening our moments of joy and drowning out the possibility of more meaningful living. Baby Driver ultimately asks whether this life is worthwhile, and whether one’s only faculties for escape from pop culture coolness only place you on a one-way highway driving further into the belly of the beast. If Pegg and Frost often played man-children free of concern, the protagonist of Baby Driver is, despite being Wright’s youngest yet, in some ways Wright’s most mature protagonist thus far, but tragically so, like a prematurely self-aware child never really given the chance to experience the innocence of not giving a care. Baby Driver boasts the undeniable siren call of reckless abandon, of the pleasures of “cool”, but it also speaks to Wright’s genuine concern for the rat-a-tat entropy of youth in search of a spot in the higher echelons of genre archetypes and Tarantino-esque bad-guy bangers. It asks whether cool really isn’t much more than a trap we use to draw youth into worlds not worth living otherwise.
The child in this case is appropriately named Baby (Ansel Elgort, surprising with a laidback, quiet Southern charm that plays not as strong-silent type and more as a boy accustomed to watching, waiting, and introspectively judging people before acting). Baby owes and has been paying off a serious debt to Atlanta gangster Doc (Kevin Spacey, radiating low-humming malevolence as only he can). To pay off this debt, Baby drives getaway vehicles through the busy swerves and Southern curves of the Atlanta streets, carrying criminals like the vaguely screw-loose Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the comically-self-obsessed-and-in-love gruesome twosome of Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez). When Baby finishes his debt and, coincidentally, falls in love with waitress Debora (Lily James), he thinks he’s out for good. As genre-consciousness dictates, the viper’s nest around him has other ideas.
A swagger-filled, lightly Southern-friend plunge into the jukebox-mind of Edgar Wright, the director’s camera appropriately jukes and jives to the beat of his mental mixtape with a hop-scotching attitude of aesthetic revelry and sheer visual and aural bon vivance. There are many car chases dotting Driver, but the film’s differential is its vivid soundtrack serving not as background but as skeletal structure, with the camera and the editing forming an unholy communion with the music and metastasizing the best moments of the film into tick-tick-boom-boom musical numbers. Better still, Wright’s eye and ear do not only come to life during the designated money shots of vehicular carnage amidst the tectonic pull of shaken-not-stirred metal-on-metal action. In fact, the brightest bit – the opening credits – is set to Baby walking down the humid streets of Atlanta as the camera dollies around in a less fussy, less manicured, more down-to-earth and off-the-cuff city-side sprawl than anything in La La Land’s register. In fact, and not to trade in my classicist credentials or anything, Baby Driver is definitively a better musical than last year’s critically-adored La La Land, both in terms of its formal invention and, as importantly, its interplay of ideas about how music sparks, infects, and constructs daily life – both external and internal – in the modern world.
While La La Land felt like the capital-I Idea of a musical – a slapdash mélange of references and half-hearted ideas for film snobs, a film trapped in its own head and eager to establish some kind of relationship with elites in the audience – Baby Driver is the modernistic, freshened-up, B-picture take on the same material: more lived-in, more forward-thinking, and altogether less self-conscious about its importance. It’s less stuffy, less a cleanly-pressed suit to impress your parents and more of an alley-cat, a backstreet-rumble with a greasy shark, an aesthetic tumble into spasmodic consciousness where logic is sketchy and the fleet-footed chaos of intuition and motion reign supreme. Or, to sum it up more succinctly: Baby Driver is the Looney Tunes to La La Land’s Disney. The latter is timelessly curated for esteem, sure, but the former is vigorously alive, youthful, excitedly unfinished, almost cubistic in its willingness to break down the rules of the world around it to speak in the runaway, madcap rhetoric of obsessive pop-culture energy.
Baby Driver does not succumb to avarice in its musical taste; few songs, if any, are designed to appease the masses, with Wright favoring long-forgotten ear-worms from the heydays of cool in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Little in the film, in fact, seems designed to court mainstream appeal, even though the concoction is a fiercely populist beast of a film, a muscle of jittery, staggered energy residing at the inflection point between cool-as-can-be joyride and a fiery, crash-and-burn holocaust of twisted metal and broken glass. Even the filming location is exploited at maximum overdrive, with Baby Driver being thus far the only film I’ve ever seen to galvanize modern Atlanta – typically an ambiguous copycat of other cities – with a personality all its own at both ideological and geographic levels.
Certainly, the sweltering “hip-hop, pop-playhouse” and “den of rats” attitudes associated with, respectively, Atlanta and all modern cities are present, but Wright also exploits his location’s unique aesthetic qualities, its unplanned, circular, python-like streets that criss-cross and smack into one another in confusing, seemingly arbitrary ways. While New York and LA are essentially cross-hatches of longitudes and latitudes, Atlanta was erected as a patchwork of stitched pieces connected seemingly by random chance, resulting in annular, oblong roads that curve and abut one another at strange intervals. It’s hell for Atlanta’s famously horrible traffic but a treasure trove of strange shapes, sudden stops, madcap turns, and seemingly directionless switch-ups for Wright.
Driver’s pleasures multiply with the phallic energy of rabbits in coitus. Especially disarming is Wright’s skill with characters. Beyond Elgort and Spacey, the murderer’s row of criminals are no mere stereotypes. Everyone delights in delving into the nooks and crannies of these crooks. Hamm, unexpectedly for a secondary villain, gets the best character arc, initially feeling like a glimpse of what Baby might one day become. But Hamm’s romantic airs and good-old-boy friendliness hide deep reservoirs of vengeance as well. (With all due respect, this is the best Hamm’s persona has yet been applied to a feature film).
Even the total-stereotype of Debora is saved from Wright’s sketchy skill with female characters by James’ delightfully Dolly Parton-esque 9-to-5 working-class-woman classicism, a style which also signals Baby Driver’s totally sincere and genuine refusal to court any sense of irony whatsoever. Although modernistic in many ways, Wright’s tone is also surprisingly classical in its Old Hollywood romantic disposition gleefully liberated from any cynicism. This is entirely fitting: Baby Driver could have been preciously up-to-the-moment, buts its blend of forward-thinking and backward-looking mark it as a film for the ages, and Wright as much more than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s third-wheel.