REVIEW: ‘Baby Driver’ is an engine-roaring, music-blaring love story on wheels

Debora (Lily James) meets Baby (Ansel Elgort) in  Baby Driver , directed by Edgar Wright.

Debora (Lily James) meets Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright.

The shortcut to describing Baby Driver is to call it a heist film. But the more you think about it, the less that label applies to the new film from Edgar Wright. Movies that truly belong in the heist genre tend to break down the crime, showing us detail-by-detail how the brilliant thieves got away with it. But there’s something more pressing at the heart of Baby Driver: an old-fashioned love story, where the hero is bent on escaping a criminal life he never wanted. He’s got better places to be, and a hell of a way to get there.

By building his story around the robberies instead of featuring them, Wright keeps his movie sharply focused on his getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), the one guy who wouldn’t be party to much of the actual thieving. We get bursts of high-speed pursuits, but they don’t take over the film. We get plenty of Wright’s deadpan sense of humour (though this is probably his least comedic film to date), and a collection of finely-calibrated performances. And we hear one of the best soundtracks of a film thus far in 2017. It all makes for one of the most satisfying and rewatchable movies of the summer season, and perhaps of the year.

When we meet Baby (one of a handful of codenames used in the film), he’s choosing the perfect track (“Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) to guide his escape from the latest job he’s done for Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby owes a large debt to Doc, dating back to when he stole Doc’s car as a kid, and has driven for dozens of the jobs orchestrated by Doc over the years. Baby is the lucky charm, the most dependable getaway driver in Atlanta, and the only associate that the meticulous and cautious Doc uses for every job.

Kevin Spacey as a crime boss known as Doc.

Kevin Spacey as a crime boss known as Doc.

But as the film begins, Baby’s debt is nearly paid off, and he’s longing to be clear of the lifestyle. As luck (or the screenplay) would have it, Baby meets a waitress named Debora (Lily James) at his favourite diner who shares his love of good music and his dream to make a new life elsewhere. But naturally, Baby is pulled in for another job, and the crew involved may hit the brakes on his escape plan before he can even get it in gear. 

As a performer, Elgort’s been plenty visible (The Fault in Our Stars, the Divergent series), but this may be his first true breakout role. He does an admirable job, evoking a street-wise kid with real talents (not just on the road, but with music too) who never had an opportunity to develop them traditionally. Elgort has strong chemistry with James, which is essential when Debora decides to go on the run with a guy with whom she’s only been on a single date. Elgort also has to hold his own with some heavy-duty supporting players: Jon Hamm as Buddy and Jamie Foxx as Bats, two of Doc’s other (considerably more lethal) contractors.

On a technical level, the movie just sings - almost as passionately as the vocalists on the soundtrack. Wright brings all the confidence he earned in his past cinematic successes, like the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgirm vs. the World, to bear on the new film, choreographing and capturing the car chases - and a single stunning foot chase - with an almost operatic grandeur. And his instantly recognizable editing style returns, with its smash cuts and close-ups, this time in partnership with Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss. There’s a reason Wright’s fans are as loyal as they are: you can sense that the filmmaker has a love of movies and pop culture, and his works often become scavenger hunts of clever details and hidden references that only reveal themselves after multiple viewings.

The crew for the final job: Baby (Elgort), Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Eiza González) and Buddy (Jon Hamm).

The crew for the final job: Baby (Elgort), Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Eiza González) and Buddy (Jon Hamm).

And that track list - good luck finding anything this eclectic elsewhere in cinemas this year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. included. Baby may be a criminal, but he carries around classic iPods in place of weapons. We’re treated to his wide range of musical tastes, including Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, T.Rex, Bob & Earl and Run the Jewels. Every pick integrates perfectly with the scene at hand, giving us the film viewing equivalent of what it’s like for a driver to sync their drifts to “Brighton Rock”.

Thrills aside, Wright doesn’t lose track of his screenplay. He finds ways to make a hoary genre feel fresh again, partly by allowing some uncomfortable realities to trickle through in the final scenes. Wright’s reminds us that though his movie takes some cues from the great American road movies, the open road isn’t quite the unfettered landscape it might have been in the first half of the 20th century. Some endings aren’t as simple as putting a lead foot on the gas. But at least it’s never been easier to call up your killer track.

Baby Driver gets three and a half stars out of four.


Stray thoughts

  • I’m no great fan of the cinematic “univers-ification” of pop culture, but I wouldn’t say no to a TV show about Doc’s broader criminal enterprise.
  • Jon Bernthal’s role is a borderline cameo, which I didn’t expect. Did what he say before leaving the elevator come true?
  • I feel like there’s a hidden reference somewhere in the matchbox cars that Doc uses to plan the heists...