British writer/director Edgar Wright ranks among the most innovative artists working in screen comedy today, up there with the Plasticine-contorting folk from Aardman and the whizkids behind those fabulous Old Spice commercials. His latest film, Baby Driver, is the sort of rarity that grumps such as myself often complain Hollywood doesn’t make any more. Which is to say: a genuine original.
The trailers and key art emphasise its po-faced celebs, guns and wham-bam-slam car chases, replete with screeches and clangs and Jon Hamm brandishing a semi-automatic rifle half his body height. But the real appeal of Wright’s fifth feature (following Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The World’s End) is impossible to crystallize in punchy sizzle reels or one sheets, forged at an intersection of character idiosyncrasy and atmospheric chutzpah.
The protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a genius on-the-spectrum getaway driver who will only put foot to the floor if he’s listening to appropriate audio accompaniment, played through his headphones and iPod. Several years ago Wright, tapping his toes along to Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, envisioned the song making a kick arse track for a getaway scene; it’s the tune for the film’s opening robbery and high speed escape.
The discipline, economy and ingenuity in Wright’s cinematic rhythm is a large part of what makes his films such pleasures to watch (and so very re-watchable).
The audience is taken for a ride aurally as much as visually. As Baby listens to funky tracks and blots out the rest of the world, focusing only on the road, so do we, Wright giving his kinetic hell-for-leather action scenes the unlikely appeal of a quasi-musical. The film is also, less interestingly, a no-honour-among-thieves story about a decent kid embroiled in a life of crime, from which he will invariably attempt to break free.
Baby’s genius as a calm-under-fire wheelman is recognised and usurped by heist organiser Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc is less a criminal mastermind than a means to introduce and contextualise the next sting, and the one after that, speaking in front of blackboards with chalk-drawn escape routes on it – like a character from Grand Theft Auto. Baby is brains to the brawn of his leery low-life colleagues, such as Bats (Jamie Foxx) who determines the bumptious upstart as “either hard as nails or scared as shit.”
A love interest emerges in diner waitress Debora (Lily James). As does the fallacy – grasped by viewers much sooner than Baby – than Doc will let him do One Last Job before shaking hands and parting ways. Baby’s deaf, wheelchair-constrained foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) has “future victim” written all over him. He also explains why the music-loving leadfoot can read lips and communicate through sign language.
All Wright’s films are visual pleasures. Fleeting moments in Baby Driver teasingly suggest the director might be taking his quasi-musical aspirations seriously, in a classic Hollywood musical sense, including a sweet moment between Baby and Deborah in a laundromat, where perfectly arranged coloured sheets (ordered red blue yellow, red blue yellow) tumble in the machines around them. There’s also a lovely long take depicting Baby gracefully interacting with things on the street, strutting in elegant, jazz-accompanied gait, and mime-playing a trumpet behind glass in a department store.
The discipline, economy and ingenuity in Wright’s cinematic rhythm is a large part of what makes his films such pleasures to watch (and so very re-watchable). A short moment in his 2007 buddy cop homage Hot Fuzz highlights the filmmaker’s zingy, time-condensing style. We see Simon Pegg’s police officer character lying awake at night on his bed. In the next shot, it is daylight and his pajamas are folded neatly.
It’s smart, inventive and hugely entertaining from go to whoa: a tune-pumping, vinyl-spinning, bitumen-tearing, possessed jukebox of an action movie.
Wright hasn’t explicitly told us the character has woken up, got dressed and gone to work. Like any director who, say, shoots an actor at the bottom of a flight of stairs then cuts to that same person at the top, he is entrusting our minds to fill in the gaps. It sounds like a simple thing, but in Wright’s hands much can transpire in the distance between images: entire conversations, perhaps, or entire days, or a series of events other filmmakers would deem relevant to be shown.
We see this in play in Baby Driver. At one point Joseph suggests Baby take up a decent honest job, such as delivering pizza. Cut: we see Baby enter the local pizza place in plain clothes then exit it, in the same shot, in uniform. We know he got the job; we don’t need to see his interaction with the boss. Wright has inferred that using an inventive, unbroken shot.
It’s hard to tell if working with him would be an editor’s dream or worst nightmare. At the peak of his kinetic playfulness, Wright’s embellishments are comparable to flourishes from the greats – the famous jump cuts of Jean-Luc Godard, for instance. His inclination towards pop culture hyperawareness and genre-ensconced narratives (zombies in Shaun of the Dead, aliens in The World’s End, etcetera) are perhaps the reason this playfulness tends to wane as his running times progress.
And so it is with Baby Driver. The end is a homicidal demolition derby, with as many meaningless rams and bumps as a round of dodgem cars. This is an issue, as is Debora’s lack of agency and weirdly complicit behaviour; the film would have been better if she had spunk and sass. Still, it’s smart, inventive and hugely entertaining from go to whoa: a tune-pumping, vinyl-spinning, bitumen-tearing, possessed jukebox of an action movie. I’m looking forward to watching it – and listening to it – again.
Baby Driver will be released in cinemas nationally July 13.