If this lackluster summer movie season has taught us anything, it’s that reboots, rehashes and “big” franchises, don’t always excite the casual moviegoer. Despite strong showings from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman (both very strong films) the summer movie offerings have seen its share of underwhelming would be blockbusters (The Mummy, Alien: Covenant, and Transformers: The Last Knight to name a few). These are all films that are connected in one way or another to a familiar property and lacks a sense of originality.
As Baby Driver neared its release date, many of us could feel something great in the air. The excellent reviews were the first indication that we had something promising (it initially sat at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and has slipped to still potent 97%). Moviegoers who were growing tired of going down a familiar road were eagerly anticipating a film that would be wholly original and a breath of fresh air during a time where we have been smothered by films with a been there, done that appeal.
Director and writer Edgar Wright has created the perfect summer movie. The film stands as the summer of 2017’s anti-Michael Bay entry, using long takes and restrained editing to generate more energy than Bay achieved by flash-cutting his way through 150 minutes of incoherence in his latest stab at the Transformers franchise. It’s a relief to find that some filmmakers working in the action/thriller genre still care about narrative and character development and aren’t content to take the lazy way out and stun the viewer into submission by oversaturating them with pyrotechnics and special effects.
As Baby (Ansel Elgort), the supremely talented getaway driver, sits in the car listening to his iPod and revving the engine, the criminal trio of Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) go about the business of liberating bags of cash. Once the cops have been eluded, the four culprits meet up with the mastermind, Doc (Kevin Spacey), to divvy up the cash. We soon learn that Baby, not a prototypical criminal, is working off a debt. One more job and it will be paid. That caper turns out to be a nasty one with three new persons of interest – Eddie (Flea), J.D. (Lanny Joon), and sociopath Bats (Jamie Foxx) – holding up an armored car. Baby is so unnerved by the resulting carnage that his driving is sloppy and the robbery nearly ends in disaster. Meanwhile, in his personal life, he is developing a playful rapport with a waitress, Debora (Lily James), at his favorite restaurant – an attachment Doc uses when he decides that he doesn’t want to go looking for a new driver for his next score: the takedown of a U.S. post office.
One thing Baby Driver has going for it is its ability to please the crowd. It doesn’t have all the twists and turns of a classic heist movie, but it has enough to keep the viewer engaged and a couple of solid shock surprises. There’s a flirty romance that’s played with just enough sweetness to be engaging without crossing the line into saccharine. The car chases are the first in recent memory to provoke white-knuckle thrills instead of bored yawns. And Wright’s use of music – to have us hear the main character’s personal soundtrack as a counterpoint to nearly every scene is an inspired way to pull us into the action. Almost every element of the film feels so new and fresh that it’s hard not get wrapped up in its appeal. It’s proof that you don’t need over the top action scenes to get the blood flowing. There is a simplicity at play here that makes its action sequences feel bigger than some of the more recent summer counterparts.
The key ingredient to any action/heist film is the director’s ability to generate suspense. Wright gets the job done but not by assembling the film in the editing room using cuts that are approximately a half-second in length. Nor does he feel compelled to do everything using CGI. It’s possible that computers were employed to some degree in the chase sequences – I don’t know one way or the other – but most of the stunts are done using real cars careening down real Atlanta streets. And, although Wright choreographs the car action carefully, he does so with a nod to the reality of physics. These qualities give Baby Driver an edge that the recent Fast and Furious movies have lacked, despite their ability to entertain. We feel like we’re inside a car rather than watching one in a video game.
The soundtrack is wide, varied, and selected to match the action. If you want an eclectic mixtape, look no further than this film. You get tunes such as “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spence Blues Explosion, “Let’s Go Away for a While” by the Beach Boys, “Unsquare Dance” by Dave Brubeck, “Easy” by The Commodores, “Debora” By T. Rex, “Tequila” by The Button Down Brass, “Every Little Bit Hurts” by Brenda Holloway, “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” by Barry White, and “Brighton Rock” by Queen. These aren’t just songs thrown together to sell a soundtrack; they’re organic to the movie’s DNA and without them, some of the scenes wouldn’t have that extra something that makes them click.
The great thing about the performers in Baby Driver is that they understand the material and the exhibit enough character development to make them more than caricatures. Ansel Elgort proves to be a very capable lead. He has a bit of charisma and likability to lead the proceedings and is always believable in the role. He and Lily James share a palpable chemistry that is sweet enough and also serves to raise the stakes as the film goes along. Kevin Spacey gives Doc some nuances that make him more than the cold and conniving gangster we first meet and Jon Hamm makes us wish he took on more characters like Buddy because he hits all the right marks in the role. Perhaps the most surprising player for me here was Jamie Foxx who goes a bit dark for his turn here and gives his best performance in awhile. Foxx has been sleepwalking through his latest roles but he feels very inspired here.
Before Baby Driver opened I was concerned that audiences would ignore it over the weekend but thankfully the box office results proved me wrong. Perhaps timing is everything. We’ve been over saturated with such lackluster fare this summer that Baby Driver was different just enough to break through. I’m hoping this inspires other studios to release more original ideas onto the mainstream public because it’s what the industry needs. This is easily the best film of the summer and one of the best of the year so far.
Reel Talk gives Baby Driver 4 Reels