Dir: Edgar Wright
Deciding what delicacy to serve up after the sweet and refreshing ‘Cornetto trilogy’ was always going to be a tall order for Edgar Wright. Forged in the surreal bedsitland of TV sitcom Spaced, his cine-literate partnership with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost transferred naturally to the movies. They first envisioned the English Home Counties facing the zombie apocalypse. Then a countryside murder cult. And finally, full-on alien invasion. As a triptych it established each of their names …and set a very high bar. Wright chooses a different highway here, but one just as recognisable as his own. It’s a route that takes the foot off the pure comedy, and revs up the hyper-stylisation that is his hallmark: the rapid-fire edits, fleeting close-ups and self-conscious choreography. It’s not that it doesn’t have its fair share of wisecracks, just that the humour settles down in the passenger, rather than the driving seat.
With closer ties to the action genre, what comes to the fore instead is a drive towards something genuinely innovative. Music’s been an integral ingredient in Wright’s movies. Especially by the time we got to the nostalgic nineties hit parade of The World’s End (2013). Perhaps reaching a peak here, Baby Driver is an attempt to spin a music and movie hybrid on an ambitious new level.
Getaway driver ‘Baby’ is plugged into a permanent soundtrack, and thus so are we. Listening to a non-stop iPod shuffle of contemporary and retro classics, he’s drowning out the aural after-effects of past trauma. As a device, it keeps the tunes coming, with the torque to turn the tone on a sixpence, accelerating the action from nought to thrilling in an instant. We begin with him grooving to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion while he waits in the motor for his ‘employers’ to carry out their latest heist. Job done, he explodes into escape mode, screeching through impossible manoeuvres to flee his pursuers, and all beautifully synchronised to the beat.
But the syncopation doesn’t end there and the characters’ interactions continue to synthesise with the soundtrack, a deeper blend of audio and visual than the big screen has seen before. Crafted in conjunction with sonic alchemist Osymyso, it’s an exhilaratingly playful melding of sound and movement. It comes into its own when a weapons deal goes wrong, each gunshot booming with gratifying musicality. The scene catches the shadow of Ben Wheatley’s lacklustre Free Fire (2016) in the headlights, illuminating the zest that was absent in that venture by comparison.
The cherubic Ansel Elgort fits the title role like a kid glove. His near-mute introversion (unless behind the wheel!) allows all other roles to careen off him equally. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal excels as a loose-cannon thug, offended by Baby’s perceived aloofness. Kevin Spacey adds gravitas, seeming to relish the role of gentlemanly crime-lord by the glint in his eye. Lily James’ expertly-judged wholesomeness tempts Baby to life on the right side of the tracks. Meanwhile, Eiza Gonzales’ siren-esque Darling is devoted to Jon Hamm’s ‘Buddy’. Hamm is continuing to select roles that grow his cinema cred, but it’s Jamie Foxx who takes pole position. His badder-than-thou ice-cool maniac is the most memorably unhinged of the ensemble.
The rhythmically interwoven soundtrack provides very nearly a full tank of fuel for the run time, showing signs of beginning to tyre in the third act, but this only accentuates the core idea’s freshness. It may pull up next to Tarantino, but it’s not derivative; Wright has navigated to his own destination. But it’s perhaps only QT who places similar emphasis on integrating pop music with a rebooting of cinema’s conventions.
Yet the Wright stuff is just so easy to watch. It’s stimulating to be propelled on such a breezily kinetic plot. Comfortingly uncomplicated, this is 100% about entertainment. Every element is positioned on screen for the mutual pleasure of the eyes and ears. Baby Driver is an invigoratingly original mash-up of music, motion and mph. Effortlessly enjoyable.
★ ★ ★ ★