Edgar Wright is the kind of virtuoso director that gives action cinema a good name. In his hands, chases nimbly streak down city streets and fights are a symphony of intertwined punches and gun shots – when characters move, you have no choice but to pay attention, due to the sheer kineticism of his storytelling.
After bringing that contagious exuberance to his British Cornetto Trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and World’s End – he’s turned his focus stateside with his new film Baby Driver, a crime caper set in Atlanta. Fortunately, the change in setting doesn’t detract one bit from his trademark manic energy. And in fact, a special new element is added to his usual tale of a good guy trying to get out of a tough scrape – the vroom vroom of a car’s engine and the call of the open freeway.
Our good guy here is Baby, played with an appealing sweetness by Ansel Elgort. He’s in that arrested development place where he’s not a kid anymore, but still hasn’t assumed the heavy yoke of adulthood. But Baby’s not a typical 20 year old – instead of dealing with nagging parents or student loans, he lives with his deaf foster father (played by real-life deaf stand-up comedian CJ Jones) and works as the getaway-car driver for a crime syndicate headed up by Kevin Spacey’s Doc. And man can this kid drive. The opening heist, involving him and some bank robbers in a high-speed pursuit from what seems like every unit the Atlanta PD can deploy, involves so many break-neck turns and close calls, the audience I saw the film with broke into spontaneous applause at its conclusion. There’s no CGI on the screen, so it looks amazingly real (not too fast or too furious, if you get my meaning), so you’re gripping your armrest and holding your breath as they take another tight corner at over 100 mph.
Now that’s telling you a lot about the scene, but I still haven’t even mentioned the most important part – that the whole spectacle is set to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – a righteous jam that builds with the chase’s intensity and sets the stage for what is probably one of the most impressive fusions of visuals and music in modern cinema. As song after song rolls through with each scene (and you will be buying the soundtrack, so just go ahead and factor it into your budget now), sounds from the movie’s action are cut in to the beat – and not just the sounds you might expect like the swish of windshield wipers or the reloading of a glock – all the little noises we don’t normally register, as someone makes a peanut butter sandwich or sets down a thick stack of money, are incorporated too. It takes the concept of “diegetic” sound to a whole new level.
See, Baby always has a song playing in his head, usually through his earbuds, which start to just feel like an extension of his body – like the endless sunglasses and Ipods he shuffles through. He has to in order to drown out the ringing in his ears – a bothersome symptom of the tinnitus he got in a car crash years ago – the same crash killed his parents and resulted in him ending up in a kind of indentured servitude to crime boss Doc. The funky soundtrack drowns out something else for Baby too – the cries of the victims and bystanders who actually get hurt as a rotating cast of more hardened criminals – played with some really fun scenery-chewing by Jon Hamm, Jamie Fox, Jon Bernthal and more – enact Doc’s elaborate robberies. We see that Baby isn’t cut out for that life from the beginning – he’s the guy who goes out of his way to throw the old lady’s purse back to her, even as he steals her car to get away. But however loud he turns up the volume, he can’t deny that he is a part of it. And the moment he meets Lily James’ Deborah, a lovely and equally wide-eyed waitress with a yearning to get out of town, it all becomes about how he can leave behind the fast lane, for a shot at a normal life with her.
And so it becomes Baby and Deborah vs. the world. Someone calls them “Bonnie and Clyde” at one point and the movie does develop that romantic, fatalistic drive. How can their young love, which feels so pure, survive in a place where everything feels a little bit…well, bananas. Luckily they have Edgar Wright’s vision to keep them moving, one step ahead of the cops and robbers, and luckily we have him to keep us on the edge of our seats, toes tapping for the whole ride.