James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
Baby Driver (2017)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Reviewed by James Rosario on July 10, 2017
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver was more fun than I thought it was going to be. I saw the trailer a few months back —with its overuse of generic genre tropes, clichéd story, and forced “hipness”—and thought it looked terrible. It still has those things, they just happen to be executed better than the trailer let on. I have my gripes, but I will grudgingly admit that I enjoyed the film. It’s fun, what can I say.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a gifted getaway driver (how one becomes such a thing is beyond me) who, at some point in his life, fell in bad with an Atlanta crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey). He’s been paying off some sort of debt to Doc for many years, and is nearly square. Just one more job and he’s out (of course).
Soft-spoken Baby has a hearing problem from an accident as a kid, which forces him to listen to music via earbuds to drown out the constant ringing. He uses this music as the soundtrack to his driving escapades, and, well, everything else in his life. Along the way, rivalries are formed, tensions mount, true love is discovered, and things don’t go according to plan. Did I mention the car chases? There’s car chases too. Lots of them.
For the most part, I’ve liked Edgar Wright’s other films. Shaun of the Dead (2005) and Hot Fuzz (2007) were enjoyable as hell. While I’ve always found that he wears his filmmaking influences on his sleeve, I’ve never thought of his style as being derivative. Quite the opposite, really. In fact, the two films I mentioned were a breath of fresh air for their genres, successfully subverting them, while paying homage at the same time.
This time around however, not so much. For example, I enjoy witty dialogue as much as the next jaded film critic, but when Kevin Spacey says, “Shop, let’s talk it,” I cringed a little bit. That’s something a Tarantino worshipping high schooler would come up with. I know, because I was that high schooler. Add a particular expletive in the middle of that sentence, and it could have been a line from Pulp Fiction (1994). I hate “think so-and-so meets so-and so” types of comparisons, but honestly, much of Baby Driver is Reservoir Dogs (1992) meets Romeo + Juliet (1996). Which brings me to Baz Luhrmann.
I’m going on record as a Luhrmann hater (I don’t hate only one of his films, try and guess which one). I’ve always found Luhrmann to be an extremely self-indulgent—and worse, self-important—filmmaker, and I get that same sense from Wright with Baby Driver. I don’t think this is intentional, I think Wright’s main motivation is to show us a good time, but I couldn’t escape the sense that there’s some inflated sense of worth happening somewhere.
All that aside, Baby Driver is a lot of fun. It’s refreshing to see an action movie that makes sure the action is actually comprehensible. The many car chases and other high octane sequences are meticulously coherent. They’re as complicated as you’re likely to see anywhere, but what’s so striking about them is simply that you can understand them. A novel idea for and action movie, wouldn’t you say? This is how you do it. Take note.
The performances are equally on point. Elgort, as Baby, is better than he should be. I was annoyed with him at first, but I came around once he was fleshed out some (even though his backstory is haphazard and full of holes). His love interest, Debora (Lily James), might be the weakest link, but still better than most “love interest” roles, working what she was given admirably. The contrived first meeting of the two young lovers was a little too cute for my taste, but their dialogue (in another nod to Tarantino) reminded me of Clarence and Alabama in True Romance (1993), so I forgave it.
The supporting cast is where Baby Driver really shines. Spacey gives us a somewhat perfunctory role (it’s executed perfectly, we’ve just seen him do it before), but its John Hamm and Jamie Foxx who steal the show. I'm a sucker for anything John Hamm touches, so the development from his cool-guy bro criminal to unhinged maniac criminal was a sight to be seen. I bought every minute. The same goes for Foxx’s Bats, who was both genuinely comical and seriously menacing all at once. Put all of this together with Elgort’s aloofness, and it adds up to some moments of undeniable intensity. A+ for casting.
But, what everyone is really talking about is the “cool” soundtrack. As an avid music fan and musician, I honestly find it grating that review after review tells me how cool the music is. It’s used well, I’ll give it that.
The film starts with a sequence set to “Bellbottoms” by The John Spencer Blues Explosion. I’ve always hated that song, but it works well when set to a car chase through downtown Atlanta. Who knew. This opening sequence sets the pace for an eclectic ride through popular music history. Buckle up.
What’s so interesting about the music used isn’t the specific songs that are chosen (except maybe for “Neat Neat Neat,” my favorite song by The Damned), but how they’re cut into the movie. Almost everything in the film is set to the music, which provides a unique pacing quality that, without, would have likely produced a dud. This successful marriage of music and movement is what sets the film apart from, not only other action films, but any other film which boasts a “killer soundtrack.”
Obvious comparisons will be made to other great movies that feature car chases, but Baby Driver is its own animal. I got more than I bargained for with it. I went in expecting a tired story with a healthy dose of schmaltz, but came out with a smile on my face. We've seen this type of story many times before, but the presentation is a welcomed change of pace. High art? Maybe not, but it’s a lot of fun.
Baby Driver is playing now in Asheville theaters.
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