Film Review: Baby Driver (2017)

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Baby Driver (2017)
Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Edgar Wright
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm

Runtime: 112 min

Baby Driver came with the weight of great expectations. Mark Kermode loved it, it got rave reviews everywhere. It sure knows its audience, and I bet they loved it too. One of my friends described it as a “good film if you like that sort of thing.” And, despite a few reservations, I liked it a lot.

Directed with zip and zest by Edgar Wright (this time without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), this is a snappy movie that gets all its cues bang up to the moment. You won’t see crispier cinematography in 2017, nor cooler set pieces, and nowhere a finer soundtrack, even if Tarantino brings out a dozen pics this year. Why then, you wonder, did it take from 1994 til now for Wright to get the finance to do this film?

Wright clearly nods to his love of car chases (Blues Brothers, French Connection, Bullitt, Italian Job etc.), heist movies (Reservoir Dogs, Oceans, Italian Job etc. etc.) and gloriously choreographed musicals (Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire classics), with a touch of Bonnie and Clyde thrown in for good measure, but the success story here is not that these components have been integrated into the movie, more that they mesh seamlessly into the narrative drive.

In fact, although this is a film majoring on the action scenes, it is at least as much a character study – at least up to the final, over-extended half hour and a rather silly and unnecessary tacked-on ending. Since depth of characterisation is such a vital component, Wright can be credited with pursuing the finest character actors to bring to life his labour of love.

I’ll return to Ansel Elgort, the eponymous Baby, but around him we have heavyweights like Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, almost an embarrassment of riches. Each adds something distinctive, though I feel slightly for Hamm, who is obliged to ham it up a bit by the end as revenge/escape plot becomes progressively dafter.

Spacey is as magnificent as you would expect as the straight-faced master criminal Doc, to whom ex-joy rider Baby Rider owes cash after stealing a car owned by Doc, though even he would be hard pressed to explain why Doc does a complete about turn and sacrifices himself to allow Baby and his girl to make an escape bid towards the end. As for Foxx, he steals virtually every scene he is in, even if you can’t hear half of what he says.

The problem in all this is that the male characters get all the juicy bits to get their teeth stuck into, where the two leading female protagonists, Eliza González‘s trigger-happy bank robber Darling, drooling wife to Hamm’s Buddy, and Lily James’s Debora, passive waitress girlfriend to Baby, seem at best underwritten and at worst tacked on as an afterthought. Like Tarantino, you get the impression Wright cares far more about his male characters, since it is they whose actings prod the narrative along.

But let’s return to the beginning, the set-up. Baby (Elgort) suffers from tinnitus, in his case following a car crash when he was a child that kills both his parents, and which returns frequently to haunt him.

He drowns out the sound, which can be highly intrusive if you sit and listen to it, by playing a constant stream of music, from classic soul (Harlem Shuffle), via jazzy interludes (Brubeck‘s Unsquare Dance) to cute and cultish rockers (Focus‘s Hocus Pocus, Queen’s Brighton Rock, Golden Earring‘s Radar Love etc.), and the odd sad cliche (Easyby the Commodores) and cool, funky tunes (Egyptian Reggae by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers) along the way. The full soundtrack is designed, no doubt, to induce easy nostalgia with foot-tapping in the right places. Throughout, Baby sings and dances along to these tunes, even while performing the most hair-raising driving manoeuvres but barely pausing to catch breath.

Other gang members are less than impressed by Baby, but since he has Doc’s protection that is less an issue, and at least one dude pays the price. Doc’s fortunes change when sentiment takes over and he employs the same crew two jobs running, despite firm indications they are less than stable. Baby’s fortunes change when he allows sentiment to intervene in business by dating cute waitress Debora (aka Jonathan due to the wrong name badge) and playing her T-Rex‘s silly Debora, as you do.

In short, despite Doc’s cool professionalism, the heist business is heading for a fall, big time, which happens following Baby’s decision to take exception to the endless merciless provocation from Foxx’s Leon (aka Bats) – and which ends with Bats paying the price impaled. Baby’s other mistake is being blamed by Buddy for the death of Darling in a police shoot-out, which revenge knows no limits; til death do us part and all that.

Elgort seems well cast as Baby, who says little.  Since he is at his least effective when speaking, that works out well. Like Astaire, he can dance a little, and even masters sign language for the effective scenes with deaf foster father Joseph (the excellent C J Jones.) There is an elegant fluidity to all his choreographed scenes, including the driving scenes, to which Wright applies the same fast cutting technique that worked so well in parts of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

This brings me to Wright’s script, which I found to be uneven. At its best, it brings the wit and humour of the Cornetto trilogy, though it does on occasions lose its way, notably in the rambling but cutesy dialogue between lovers Baby and Debora. Since much of the film requires no dialogue at all, this will not be regarded by most viewers as a serious flaw, though flaw it undoubtedly is. As my son would say, it left me a touch “baffled” in a couple of scenes.

Baby Driver is a fast-paced thrill-seeking spectacle which its audiences will love; where it explores character, it does so remarkably well.  For these reasons alone you should make a point of seeing it, while reserving judgement on the bits that don’t work.

From me, a solid 4 stars out of 5.