by Ken Bakely
Good filmmaking is the kind you don’t notice. It should feel inherent. But that doesn’t preclude stylized filmmaking. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is one of the most emphatically stylized movies that’s come from a major studio in quite some time, and it’s infinitely better off because of it. In a time when it’s easy to become fatigued by rounds of near-identically envisioned perspectives on how to shoot action scenes, this is nothing short of a dramatic electric shock to the expected and the generic. Its cool but effusive nature would be welcome in any movie environment, but this comes as the complaints of audiences and critics about over-tested franchise features has reached a fever pitch. In a crowded, oft-bland field, it proudly stands above and alone.
Baby Driver has no qualms about adhering to a number of heist movie tropes, but they’re used as jumping off points for its blasts of stylistic originality. There’s a driver, known only as Baby (Ansel Elgort), who has made decent money staging getaway for a rotating series of robbers, under the supervision of a commanding Atlanta crime boss called Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby has tinnitus – he’s had it ever since he was a little kid, when he was in a car accident which killed both his parents. To combat the effects of the condition, he constantly listens to music through earbuds, and has amassed an eclectic playlist of songs that he uses to time out heists. He’s so good at this job, Doc’s called him a “lucky charm.”
Yet Baby’s been itching to leave the crime world and move on. Good money, toxic environment. There’s the matter of taking care of his aging, deaf foster dad (CJ Jones), as well as the fact that he’s met Debora (Lily James), a charming young woman who works as a waitress at a local diner. But his post-driver plans are stymied when Doc comes to him with one last job (as happens to all protagonists in such stories). It’s a big deal, lifting millions in money orders from a post office. The team he has to drive is a mix of past associates, including a real loose cannon of a gunman, named Bats (Jamie Foxx). There’s no room for error, but nerves seem more exposed here than ever before. That doesn’t seem like a good mix from the get-go. Of course, there always tends to be room for things to get even worse.
Much has been said about Baby Driver’s eclectic soundtrack, critical to the film itself. The music cues were purportedly written into the script from the project’s start, and it lives off each note. Everything, from the speed of a character’s walk to the timing of gunshots and explosions, is tied to whatever song which happens to be playing at the moment. The key to the movie’s success is the unified, enveloping universe it presents. The full-bodied tracklist. Editing and shot selection that’s perfected on a frame-by-frame basis. Bill Pope’s color-saturated, bright, and lively cinematography. Such technical credits complement what’s been put in front of the camera. Wright’s writing is as snappy, witty, and quick as ever before, with dialogue that’s knowingly unnatural, but hits the ear with great cadence.
He’s assembled a cast which gets it. Elgort brings a reserved, moody demeanor that’s a good fit for the character, conceived as more of a presence than a voice. Nevertheless, he and Lily James have a fine chemistry, limited by the broad strokes that Debora is written with, but charming all the same. As for the supporting cast – Spacey, Foxx, and company – chewing scenery is the only real option for this material, and that’s what they do. This is a playground, where villains snarl and twirl proverbial canes, and ambivalent characters revel in their mysterious backgrounds. Normally, such underdevelopment would be a negative toward a movie, but in the case of Baby Driver, it all fits in under a fantastical, melodious umbrella.
It’s continuous, slick, and open craftsmanship. Early on, when Baby struts down the streets of downtown Atlanta, listening to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” the lyrics of the song can be seen in the background of multiple shots, even as graffiti emblazoned on brick walls. This comes right after an opening chase scene, scored to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The creative thesis, laid out in less than ten minutes, is never truly diverged from for the nearly two hours which follow. Wright has said that Baby Driver is a passion project, and the idea for it has been with him for well over twenty years (in fact, almost longer than Elgort has been alive). The unrelenting enthusiasm here, reverberating from the top down, is palpable, consistent, and very sharp. This is the passion project as it should be, bringing white-hot, booming energy that can’t be ignored.