NOTE: This review was originally published March 15, 2017.
Long before “Spaced” or the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, a young Edgar Wright dreamed of making an epic action-musical. The aspiring filmmaker would play cassette tapes and imagine the high speed chases scored with a precise musicality, the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire playing in sync to a track’s rapid drum beats, the hero literally dancing through his post-heist coffee run. 22 years later at SXSW, all of this heady daydreaming came to vivid life with the world premiere of the absolutely stupendous “Baby Driver.”
Written and directed by Wright, “Baby Driver” stars Ansel Elgort as a quirky but wildly skilled getaway driver named Baby. Plagued by tinnitus from a childhood tragedy, Baby is never without headphones that pump his eardrums with songs that drown out the affliction’s merciless moan. His personal soundtrack also fuels his every motion, whether he’s racing through the concrete jungle of Atlanta with a car full of brazen bank robbers (Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jaime Foxx), flirting with a charismatic waiter/aspiring singer (Lily James), or making a precisely-spread peanut butter sandwich for his deaf and loving foster dad (CJ Jones). But that’s all premise. The plot of this inventive action movie follows Baby on one last job with a ruthless yet eccentric criminal mastermind, played by a deliciously deadpan Kevin Spacey.
Yet, the plot feels besides the point. Sure, there’s a charming romance between the good-hearted getaway driver and the waitress with a megawatt smile. There’s the threat of being caught by the cops, and betrayed by his shady cohorts. But compared to “Hot Fuzz,” “At World’s End” or “Shaun of the Dead,” “Baby Driver”s story feels unsophisticated in its simplicity, and lacking in the emotional intelligence of Wright’s previous films. Tapping less into emotions and more into adrenaline and wonder, it’s more style than substance, but oh, what style!
“Baby Driver” kicks off with a fast and ferocious car chase that’ll leave you breathless, elegantly blending bonkers practical car stunts with a masterful edit that has every cut and onscreen action set to the soundtrack blaring in Baby’s ears/the theater’s speakers. At a post-screening Q&A, Wright revealed that this and the latter on-beat gunfire were achieved by piping the music in on set, so the performers were essentially dancing, albeit in an unconventional way, laced with violence. To give this musical a look that’s reminiscent of Hollywood’s grandest dance numbers, but also joltingly fresh and strange, the visionary filmmaker brought in acclaimed and eclectic choreographer Ryan Heffington, who made a name for himself with one groundbreaking Sia music video (“Chandelier“) after another (“Elastic Heart“) and another (“Big Girls Cry“) and — well, you get the picture. Heffington laces an easy elegance of movement and dance into coffee runs, car chases and shoot outs that makes the genres of action and musical collide with like clapping hands, sparking excitement and astonishment.
Naturally, the cast deserves props for diving into such a dizzying challenge and handling it with utter aplomb. Lovely in throwback ’50s-inspired fashions, James is radiant as the good girl gone for a bad boy, wielding her arched eyebrows as weapons. Jon Bernthal and Foxx bring a spitting menace as Alpha Male crooks disturbed by Baby’s placid demeanor. Hamm and González make a sizzling pair as a sultry Bonnie and Clyde team, who relishes in the thrill of the heist, then revel like it’s the last days of Rome. But it’s Elgort whose faced with the greatest challenge.
Like the unnamed hero in “Drive,: this getaway driver is a man of few words whose eyes are often hidden behind dark sunglasses. (Baby is never without a back-up pair or two.) Elgort’s asked to sell the audience on a near-silent and often-shaded character through gentle dances, enthusiastic karaoke, and many steely gazes. But it’s easy to fall for this fresh-faced ingendude. His casual cool and breezy demeanor make Baby a refreshing jolt amid the sneers, smirks and shit-talking of his peers. From the moment we see him and stark black-and-white bomber jacket and his curly casual pompadour, we know he’s different. He deserves a way out, and we’re driven to see him earn it. Lucky for us, the journey is a hell of a ride.
Following it’s world premiere at SXSW, “Baby Driver” hits theaters August 11, 2017.
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