Four years. Four long years. That may not seem like too much down time for the Terrence Malicks and Terry Gilliams of the directing world, but for a director as propulsive and exciting as Edgar Wright, four years can feel like a lifetime. We all know why it took as long as it did for Wright to follow up 2013’s The World's End. His deal with Marvel to direct Ant-Man. The dreaded “creative differences” rearing their ugly head once more. A year lost to pre-production.
I still haven’t forgiven them. Not really.
You see, I’d be hard-pressed to name a director whose films I anticipate more fervently than Edgar Wright. That’s something to probably establish pretty early on in a review of one of his films. He’s got a perfect batting average so far, so it’s difficult not to expect something special. No movies are edited quite like Edgar Wright movies. No one puts soundtracks together quite like Edgar Wright (I could make a long list of bands I discovered from the soundtracks of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World or The World's End). His films are so kinetic and full of joy. A new project is to be celebrated, especially with so long a wait for it to see the light of day.
So consider the floor of expectations I had walking into Baby Driver.
The premise certainly seems tailor-made for his action comedy proclivities. An unassuming, taciturn young man, Baby (Ansel Elgort) moonlights as a getaway driver for a gang led by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby’s into Doc for some money, and driving for him will clear the debt. And no one’s better than Baby. He’s a good kid at heart, no matter the cavalcade of unsavory characters he associates with. He just wants to listen to music and drive all night, maybe with that cute Debora girl (Lily James) who serves him coffee at the local diner. He listens to that music to drown out the constant tinnitus in his ears, raising questions from the rest of Doc’s crew (played by the likes of Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez and Jamie Foxx), but his driving speaks for itself. Baby’s almost square with Doc, and one more job will get him there. Then he’ll be free to live his life how he wants.
Or so he thinks.
If that sounds familiar, it should. The story of Baby Driver is pretty boilerplate ‘Good Guy gets caught up in the criminal underworld and can’t get out’ sort of stuff, and if it weren’t for Edgar Wright’s involvement, it would be a lot more difficult to get amped up for a movie that seems like a remake of Drive. But Wright is just the sort of filmmaker who has the chops to make a played out genre film exciting again. He uses Baby’s own personal constant musical score to form the pulsing foundation of his film, with even the most innocuous action following the beat of the song. Footsteps, tire squeals, windshield wipers, gun fire, all of it reinforces the music. Even when there is no music to speak of (which is not often), the pattern of speech feels like beat poetry, chock full of internal rhyme schemes and percussive delivery (Baby’s described as “Mozart in a go kart” and having “a hum in the drum”). It all adds up to a heist flick that’s more of a musical than most musicals.
It’s the sort of movie Edgar Wright was born to make, so in line with his strengths as an action comedy director and fine purveyor of the genre arts. Baby Driver isn’t as much of a pure comedy as the Cornetto Trilogy or Scott Pilgrim (though there are some great laughs throughout), but it is certainly the apex of his action work. Once again collaborating with DP Bill Pope and editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos, Wright makes the car chases and shoot outs sing (often literally), painting a frenzy of action across the screen far easier to follow than your average summer blockbuster orgy of violence and destruction. It oozes cool from every pore, with a soundtrack ranging from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to Simon & Garfunkel, and Foxx, Hamm and Spacey deliver their lines with steely confidence. Elgort and James form the sort of romance that would make a 50’s greaser proud. It’s all so perfectly realized, so unified in its tone and execution. It’s an Edgar Wright film par excellence.
The coolness of it all is almost entirely surface level, and some would be right to criticize the film for being rather slight. There isn’t a whole lot to the characters or their backstories (especially Debora, who basically only exists within the context of her romance with Baby). It is true that Baby Driver does not have the resonance of Wright’s previous films, and it's true that it wears out its welcome a bit in the last eight minutes or so. Time will tell just how well it holds up to multiple viewings because of these deficiencies. It often feels a little more like an exercise of ideas than a natural story, but the quality of the exercise more than wins the day. It’s more a case of refining Wright’s style than innovating it. Some may consider that a lost opportunity, especially coming off the Ant-Man debacle, but Baby Driver is such an experience to behold, such a cinematic marvel that it’s effortless to overlook its minor blemishes. All you have to do is simply strap in, jam some tunes and go along with the ride. And what a ride it is.