From the moment Edgar Wright hyper-synched the daily monotony of grooming, flushing and toast spread in “Shaun of the Dead,” you had to figure he had a movie in him like “Baby Driver.” Rattling around in his brain since as far back as 1995, he nearly wasted (his own words) the idea on a music video, though one could just as easily sense his action-oriented set pieces as an extended riff on the videos and commercials that many auteurs of his generation got their start in. As with all of his cinematic riffs, Wright’s influences are as bountiful as Tarantino and pays tribute with love, which is what helps his virtual The Fast and the Fantasia stand apart from the pack.
Ansel Elgort plays Baby whom we first meet as the getaway driver for a pack of thieves, including Buddy (Jon Hamm), his lady, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and the gruff Griff (Jon Bernthal). Before the three start make their first move from the car, Baby puts on his iPod and his earbuds and the steps of the robbery play out to the beat of his song. Clearly many would be ready to stamp Baby with some form of diagnosis, including the crew he helps evade capture from the police every time, but the boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), knows special is not to be trifled with. Baby is under a contract of sorts to Doc for a youthful indiscretion that cost him a lot of money, and Baby is down to his final job to square things for good.
The timing could not be better for Baby when he hears the passing tones of diner waitress, Deborah (Lily James) and begins to strike up more than a friendship. Doc, meanwhile, never one to fancy using the same crew twice, save for his “lucky charm,” puts Baby in the path of a psychotic loose cannon called Bats (Jamie Foxx) who doesn’t trust the driver any longer than one of his songs. Baby may also be square with the past, but the past certainly isn’t through with him; not as long as Doc can keep planning jobs around his fail-safe escape plan.
From Ryan O’Neal’s unnamed wheelman in Walter Hill’s “The Driver” to Ryan Gosling’s similarly nameless specialist in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” the iteration of the expert behind the wheel has seen its ups and a trilogy of downs (see: Jason Statham in the “Transporter” films.) Action directors going back to the silent era have always found a rhythm in cutting their adrenaline-and-hair-raising set pieces and then adding in their composers to put the icing on. Wright’s gimmick takes it the other way in attempting to design, shoot and cut his chases and gun battles to every guitar riff and drum connect. Music lovers out there can judge for themselves whether or not Wright chose the best songs to compile Baby’s soundtrack but there is no doubting the gleeful exhilaration to which the adversaries on both sides of the law take the battle to the beat of whatever drummer is playing through those earbuds. Even Busby Berkeley would be proud.
Ansel Elgort is left in many ways holding the bag containing much of Wright’s ambition that goes from high-octane heist thriller to getting-to-know-you Meet-Cute. It’s a unique juggling act that makes you wonder just who is handling the overall aesthetic — William Friedkin or Cameron Crowe — neither of which is a criticism as Wright handles both gracefully.
Elgort, on the other hand, does have trouble making the transition at times. He is certainly right at home in the courtship scenes displaying the same kind of confident charm that made women swoon over him in “The Fault In Our Stars.” There is also no fault in the moments when he can just silently sit upright and let the seasoned pros like Spacey, Hamm and Foxx command the room. When Elgort is called on to put on his tough guy face, though, it is not nearly as convincing. Perhaps Wright wanted the look of a literal child putting his mean pouty face on when they are denied a cookie but it strikes the chord of a nice guy out of his comfort zone at a key period when he is being called to grow up.
The concept of the car chase suffered in limbo for too long with inexperienced directors too often cutting corners instead of respecting why films like “The French Connection,” “Bullitt” and “Ronin” are still held in high regard today. Like all great students, Wright tips his hat to the teachers and refuses to phone in the camerawork on his stunts. There is more drifting in the opening chase than Terrence Malick shooting a film in Tokyo. Great action has always had more in common with dance choreography than the simple appetite for destruction and Wright is simply moving to the steps he knows. The Cornetto Trilogy of “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” exist in their own stratosphere. But Baby Driver may just rightly put a few more wallflowers onto his dance floor. [B+]