With his eleventh-hour departure from Ant-Man, we’ve been bereft of a new Edgar Wright vehicle since 2013’s The World’s End; probably the most marmite-y of The Cornetto Trilogy but a film still worth defending for being just a genuinely enjoyable romp – and with more to say about getting older than Logan – even if it didn’t quite share the comedic chops of the first two films in the loose series.
At last though he returns to us, once again in dual writing and directing roles, for Baby Driver. (Fault in our) starring Ansel Elgort as the titular Baby, the film follows this young man as he acts as a getaway driver for Doc (Spacey) and the various criminal grunts under his employ. A driver without equal, he’s a quirky millennial who prefers to be perpetually listening to music than engage any of the ‘adults’ in conversation. Things are going well until Bats (Foxx) joins the crew; a real loose unit who’s none too keen on other people in general and takes a distinct dislike to Baby’s shtick in particular. Egos clash, cars crash, people get shot and Baby tries to get affairs sufficiently together so that he can finally escape this criminal life with his best gal.
Being an Edgar Wright film, the most immediately obvious element that jumps out at you is just how unlike an Edgar Wright film it feels. This is partially due to the lack of regulars in the cast but the same charge could be leveled at Scott Pilgrim and that film remains recognisably Wright-ian. The opening movement in particular is a worrisome series of scenes trying very hard to exude aloofness and cool but not quite reaching it and languishing somewhere between irritating and cringe-worthy (looking at you elaborate-tracking-shot-coffee-run).
The film thankfully recovers from this initial stumble and goes on to be quite enjoyable but the sensation that something is not quite (W)right never fully evaporates. The film is just too American. It lacks the charm and whimsy of the British Sitcom vibe his films usually embody or the truly heightened-reality logic of Scott Pilgrim which fit his sensibilities so well. Instead it’s all trying so very hard to be cool and a little bit edgy that it’s solely through his sheer strength as an action director – not to mention his uncanny ear for soundtrack choices – that a truly engaging film does eventually break through.
While his usual, sustained low-key charm may be missing from the film, he’s replaced it with what feels like the culmination of his quirky set-piece directing in its most indulgent and glorious form. One of the most fondly remembered sequences from Shaun of the Dead is the pool-cue fight in the pub near the conclusion where the main characters circle the zombified owner of the pub and beat him to death perfectly in sync with “Don’t Stop Me Now”.
Imagine a film made of moments like that but with the adrenaline pumped way up and many of the sequences involving either car chases or gun fights and sometimes both at once. It’s truly hard to precisely describe just how satisfying it is to experience the clockwork kineticism of these sequences as everything from the song choice to the movements/edits and sound effects all blur together into a perfectly controlled and in-sync audio-visual maelstrom of action filmmaking. If it were possible to abstract the idea of a Rube Goldberg Machine and channel it into a gunfight where lines dividing choreography, sound design and music all collapsed into a singular entity, this film is it. But even the less showy car and foot chases remain fun and exciting due to Wright’s affinity for controlled but constant camera movement during action scenes.
The aforementioned soundtrack will, if there’s any justice in the world, likely be the source of much of the discussion surrounding the film. Wright has always had a largely unremarked upon skill in curating very fine soundtracks for his films but here it feels like a personal attack on the image James Gunn has acquired as the new Cool Music Guy of Hollywood. No longer content to go quietly unacknowledged for his song choices, he’s essentially constructed most of a film, a large chunk of character motivation and almost all of his action scenes around a soundtrack. And a fine playlist it is too.
Equally as well chosen are the cast. Everyone commits fully to their roles, adding an effortless dramatic weight to what are often quite silly scenes and scenarios with Spacey and Hamm as the standouts while Foxx delivers a genuinely unnerving and tense turn as Bats. Elgort himself is in theory solid, he’s well capable of captivating as the lead but the script does let him down in places. Aside from the previously mentioned irritating opening section, there’s an ending shot so unbearably saccharine that one can only conclude/hope we’re meant to read it as a dream sequence (the overt rainbow in the background makes me think that we are). However, when he’s driving, charming or sprinting, young Ansel acquits himself well and remains generally likeable even through the writing’s more insufferably smug moments.
Ultimately what we have is a film that isn’t as cool as it thinks it is but that’s by no means a deal breaker. As an example of action filmmaking at its purest – and in places bordering on transcendent – it’s an excellent demonstration of why Wright should be making the biggest, loudest blockbusters possible. It’s a pity it’s not as funny as it could have been or as charming as it should have been but it is nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable and absolutely worth your time as something a little bit different in the often samey summer blockbuster conveyor belt.
Baby Driver is in cinemas now.