I recently watched Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz for the zillionth time. This was partly to assuage my excitement for Baby Driver, Wright’s latest, and partly because the discovery of a commentary track by Wright and his buddy Quentin Tarantino was too good to pass up. Usually commentary tracks feel slight, strained, straight-up unnecessary; Wright and Tarantino have a casual chat that’s nearly as bonkers as Hot Fuzz itself. The pair share a vast encyclopedic knowledge of film and music, and throughout the course of the commentary they discuss nearly 200 films — basically everything besides Hot Fuzz — and if you’re thinking someone should write out that list, well, yeah: reddit.
Their knowledge is enviable, yes, but it’s not nearly as enviable as the fact that both writer/directors manage to make movies that are unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Baby Driver, it should be stated at the outset, is unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Wright, like Tarantino, has fresh ideas that swing for the narrative fences, and like Tarantino he also has the prowess to actually achieve his vision. This time around the vision is something people are calling a “car chase musical”, which seems only half-accurate because it doesn’t quite do Baby Driver justice.
As with Hot Fuzz and Wright’s other efforts, the characters are sharply drawn such that you know them well after the first scene. Baby is a talented but young getaway driver, Doc is a ruthless crime boss, Buddy is the crazy muscle, Bats is the crazier muscle. A few get the short end of the stick (more on that in a second) but overall it’s a similar tightrope Wright walks with his characters: these are simultaneously genre clichés and actual people, eyes winking occasionally but hearts beating throughout.
But unlike Scott Pilgrim or anything from the Cornetto Trilogy, Baby Driver has real stakes, and this makes investment in the characters of Baby much more effective. In the first scene Baby’s driving makes for one of the most fluid car chases ever filmed, zipping gracefully around pedestrians in downtown Atlanta, shedding cop cars, using creativity and finesse more often than speed or power. There’s a three-card Monte-type trick that would make even the pursuing cops grin. But when the bullets start flying and Baby gets in over his head, the desperation shows in his driving. Baby, suffering from tinnitus such that he constantly needs music in his ears to be able to focus on driving, just wants a killer track he can flow to; he hardly expects someone else to change the song on him so suddenly.
And that’s the real wonder of Baby Driver, despite the fact that setting a car chase movie to a bangin’ soundtrack might be wondrous enough without the story. Much like its protagonist, Baby Driver ain’t perfect. There are lulls in the narrative and lulls in Baby’s life; again, there are some clichéd moments that would threaten the aforementioned originality in the hands of any other director (besides Tarantino). But there are also as many detours, hairpin swerves and U-turns in the narrative as there are on Baby’s city streets, and that — more so than the groovy soundtrack — is what keeps you on the edge of your seat. It plays nicely against those wink-wink cliché moments, and it works most effectively with the characters. You think you know which one of the crew poses the greatest threat to Baby, but then you’re proven wrong…and then you’re proven wrong again.
Ansel Elgort is central to that overall investment, too, perfectly cast as Baby, juxtaposing youthfulness and cool in almost every moment. “You’re either hard as nails or scared as shit,” one of the crew guesses, and he’s right. Elgort makes the physicality of Baby’s job look effortless, which is part of the point, and it’s endlessly satisfying watching the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx strut around spewing macho bullshit in one scene before holding on for dear life once they’re in the car with Baby. Elgort is equally natural opposite Kevin Spacey’s Doc, with whom he probably shares the most screentime; if he wasn’t quite a movie star before Baby Driver, he will be now.
If there’s one character who lacks development it’s Lily James’ Debora, the object of Baby’s affection and, at worst, a bit objectified by the film itself. It’s only noticeable because the rest of the supporting cast has backstories that are either hinted at or fully fleshed-out. A broken nose (“that’s a No-Nose no-no”), a tattoo that says HAT (“who doesn’t like hats?”), a surprisingly discerning four-year-old nephew (“…eight”) — these little things let us in on minor characters and swing them from crime-flick standards to actual agents in the underbelly of Atlanta. Debora has very little of that. One reviewer noted a borderline “Lynchian” obsession in the treatment of her character, which may be a stretch but makes an interesting comparison; still, Wright’s confidence makes you second guess this criticism because he’s so intentional in his filmmaking, more precise here than he ever has been. If Debora’s purpose in the film is to highlight Baby’s heart, then she definitely achieves that purpose. Given the surprising last scene of the film, it’s hard to call her characterization an opportunity squandered.
So Baby Driver does conjure a checklist of callouts to the films Wright loves: the ’90s “holy trinity” of Point Break, Heat and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, car chase classics like Bullitt and Gone in 60 Seconds, a little Italian Job here, a little French Connection there. This particular screening was a double feature with Walter Hill’s The Driver, which couldn’t be more different in tone than Baby but remained a clear influence nonetheless. But the surprises in the narrative and the breakneck pace of the film make the comparisons deeper than “movies with cars on the poster”; the turns of plot and character are more impressive than the turns of the steering wheel. Baby Driver is bound to be the most original film in an otherwise typically blockbustery summer, probably the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year. Again, per the crew: “that shit was bananas.”