Baby Driver Review
"Let’s head West on the 20, in a car we can’t afford, with a plan we don’t have."
That single line sums up the wistful optimism at the heart of Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s petrol-headed action thriller and his most accomplished film, which is saying something when Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are peerless achievements. And Baby Driver isn’t just a heist movie, it’s a genre mash-up just the same. He charmed horror fans with a romantic comedy and despite the lack of fourth-wall shenanigans, sashays and show tunes, Baby Driver is a musical. Ish. In Edgar Wright's words, an “energetic music driven action film”.
Everything is timed to music. Baby (Ansel Elgort) suffers from Tinnitus, a “hum in the drum”, and he listens to music all the time to drown it out. Wright’s super-cool choices for his young hero wouldn’t really fit Evita. We start with ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, move to Bob & Earle’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ and later in the mix we get Baby’s “killer track”, ‘Brighton Rock’. This lifelong Queen fan was pretty stoked to hear that get included in a superb, eclectic track listing.
But the film isn’t called Baby Listens to Your Dad’s Favourite Music. He’s a reluctant wheel-man for a heist gang, a devil behind the wheel, outmanoeuvring cops and tearing up Atlanta highways like the also musically inclined Blues Brothers did in Chicago. Opening at full speed with a breathtaking getaway sequence, even the first five minutes are more thrilling than all eight Fast and Furious movies. There’s actually nothing wrong with those big, dumb silly movies and they’re a lot of fun, but Edgar Wright is paying tribute to proper car films. Not just Bullitt or The French Connection, but the exploitation flicks of the 70s that were only about cars and the tormented heroes that drive them: Vanishing Point, White Lightning, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and especially Walter Hill’s gritty classic, The Driver, which Wright has cited, even interviewing Hill for a retrospective season of such movies in the run-up to Baby Driver’s cinema release.
The Driver was also the touchstone for the hypnotic Drive and while the execution is entirely different, the plot is very similar to Nicolas Winding Refn’s and a dozen movies before either of them. And Baby even has the same motivation as Peter in Guardians of the Galaxy, so the basic plot relaxes in fond clichés such as One Last Job, as he tries to leave his life of crime behind him. This matters not a jot. Recognising the narrative beats gives the film a rhythm and this is genre filmmaking where ‘how’ outweighs ‘why’. Wright’s technical bravado is exceptional. His frenetic editing seems more at home here, especially tempered by the songs. No matter how brutal the action, the invisible metronome ticks regardless.
Some critics said that when Baby pulls up and gets out the car, the film grinds to a halt, which happens if you only want car chases. On the contrary, it never quits, even when cars aren't getting bent. Every second of the runtime is filled with invention and characterisation, even when Baby’s just making a sandwich. While Baby listens to music the world around him falls into place like a super-power, so much so that graffiti matches lyrics, the dialogue is almost in blank verse and character names are frequently derivatives of “B” and “D”. Even the diner where Baby meets the luminous Debora (Lily James) is called “Big Diner”, and when the pace lets up in a launderette, look at how the decor even matches the washing.
Despite the precision that meant a choreographer was needed on-set to count the actors in, Baby Driver has a breezy charm that swings from daft humour to punchy violence and action that can rival Michael Mann’s Heat (machine guns timed to the beat, of course, and a foot-chase is phenomenal). This film is clicking its fingers and rarely removing its many shades.
The music stuff would just be a cute gimmick except Baby Driver is a character-led film before anything else. Each is fully-rounded and believable; the gang has interchangeable members, but even the briefest make their mark, such as Punisher Jon Bernthal. He and the other more substantial members are a collection of criminal misfits, all individual and fleshed out cartoon villains. Jamie Foxx is a nasty piece of work, while Bonnie and Clyde style couple Eiza González and Jon Hamm are more friendly to Baby, but might just be a little bit insane. Lead Ansel Elgort is known for young adult titles like the Divergent series and The Fault in Our Stars. As Baby, he delivers a deceptively demanding role and he makes it look easy. His charming relationship with his deaf foster father Joe (CJ Jones) feels genuine, as does the budding romance with Debora. British Lily James (Rose in Downton Abbey) brings a spark to what could have been a thankless role, typical of the genre.
Edgar Wright was burned by his experience of not-quite-making Ant-Man, but Baby Driver is tremendous. It deserves success, cult or otherwise, and that means disregarding Kevin Spacey’s disgusting behaviour, news of which broke shortly before the Blu-ray release. Am I imagining that marketing was muted? It would be understandable and it’s rather late to replace Spacey, as Ridley Scott managed to do, but it would be a bloody shame for Wright’s best work to be affected. Kevin Spacey might be a repugnant creep, but he’s still a talented one.
His performance as gang leader Doc is passive, in that he could do it standing on his head, but it’s still brilliant. The scene where he explains a plan in detail, but we don’t hear a word; the counting of money to a beat; the lines that drop with a smoothness only he possesses. But there’s no escaping that he is playing a bully who uses his position of power to exploit a vulnerable younger man. Baby is a reluctant member of the gang, in thrall to Doc. Awkward, I know, but don’t let it put you off that allegedly Spacey finds the character easier to play than he should.
Anyway, this is a director’s film more than anything. Wright has never been shy about his love for cinema and his films buzz with infectious excitement. Even so, this modern penchant for the genre pastiche, a marriage of arthouse and grindhouse, is greeted with suspicion by some. The thinking goes that the original films worked because they were made under desperate conditions; throwing money and talent at such stories reduces their legitimacy. I think that’s nonsense. Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of rehashing exploitation movies and Horror reinvents itself continually by repeating tried and tested formulas. This in itself is no surprise, as cinema is all about nostalgia and capturing the past; George Lucas thought it would be cool to stage Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Westerns in space and that worked out. Both Tarantino (who made his own car movie, the criminally underrated Death Proof) and Wright invest what were often clumsy and rough ideas with urgency and wit. They know cinema’s dignified history but grew up watching low-to-no-budget flicks and when they bring the two together, it is undeniably cool.
You’ll come for the car chases and the stunt work is peerless, but it’s astonishing how Baby Driver doesn’t really need them. The first chase gets the blood racing and confidence is already high, but when the car pulls up, the narrative keeps on driving.
The Blu-ray comes stuffed with extra features. The deleted scenes are largely inconsequential, but an alternative version of the kitchen scene is fun and there’s an extended ‘Brighton Rock’ sequence.
Whenever you have a number of behind the scenes vignettes, they can’t help but come across like sycophantic puff pieces. They can’t be critical and of course, the cast and crew all loved one another, the director was a genius and you’ve never seen anything like this film, blah, blah, delete as applicable. Thing is, in the case of Baby Driver, they’re right. Watching how it was made is astonishing, especially the stunt work timed to music, the on-set choreographer and live shot editing. It’s jaw-dropping stuff and well worth a watch. The two commentaries are great too, Edgar Wright is such a cheerful and enthusiastic host. He does one on his own, which rambles with anecdotes and asides. The second with Bill Pope is nerdy in technical detail.
Also included is Edgar Wright’s original music video, the inspiration for the film, starring Noel Fielding, Julian Barratt, Nick Frost and Michael Smiley. Not quite as glamorous, of course.
Commentary by Edgar Wright and Bill Pope (Director of Photography)
11 Deleted and Extended Scenes (20m)
Six Behind the Scenes clips (45m)
Eight Selected Scene Animatics (36m)
Four Rehearsals and Pre-Production clips (17m)
Mint Royale - "Blue Song" music video (4m)
Complete Storyboard Gallery
Promos and More (21m)
Wearing its heart on its sleeve, Baby Driver was filmed on 35mm in a 2.39:1 ratio. There’s a softness to the image and lovely grain that gives it an old-fashioned texture, but the detail is tactile and colours have depth with a warm tone. At least one layer change can be spotted, but it isn’t off-putting. The aesthetic keeps to a middle ground, with most of the legwork in characterisation, production and set-pieces, but it's full of surprises and in the final act, when the world drops out of time for Baby and things get a bit frantic, Baby Driver lets loose with abstract, nightmarish colour and light.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is incredible and as you would expect, this is a busy soundtrack that works very hard. At higher volumes, it tends to flatten and lose distinction, but this is somewhat because the music sits prominently in the rear channels, the songs given more presence than usual, as per the films musical tendencies. This allows for the varied soundtrack to have consistency and feel organic. Even the best film soundtracks can feel ostentatious, but the mix largely avoids that here ironically by making them more prominent. When other sound effects come to the fore, they’re sharp and precise, especially gunfire literally providing an unusual source of percussion. Voices are clear and dead centre.