Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is like a little go-cart that whizzes by lickety-split; the action scenes are reasonably coherent with little visible CGI effects unlike some recent fast-car movies I can think of (Fast Five anyone?) cut to the rhythm of a catchy if not genuinely eclectic sound track.
If the film isn't as great as I'd hope it might be that's probably the fault of the casting: Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx bring a standout mix of menace and humor to their roles as boss man Doc (to whom Baby owes money to big-time) and gun-for-hire Bats (who can smell 'wrong' wafting off of Baby a mile off). With comic support like this you need to bring your 'A' game and to be fair Ansel Elgort as the eponymous driver does his flat-out best; unfortunately the cherub-cheeked star of one of the worst movies of the past few years is much too wholesome to hide levels beneath his pretty face; when the earphones go in either ear and the music blares you can only picture the waves dampening instead of resonating with each other inside a skull-sized echo chamber.
That said Spacey is a blast; he's evil but harbors a reluctant interest in Baby. He allows Baby to work off his cash debt by driving the getaway cars; once the debt's paid off comes back anyway to ask Baby to drive one more time. You get the sense that Doc isn't being a total jerk doing this; you get the sense that the man likes having Baby around, that Doc regards Baby as more than just a lucky charm, misses him for some presumably paternal reason.
Bats is interested in Baby in a different way: he just has to look at the kid and alarm bells start ringing. Or maybe ringing louder than usual--you get the impression that his head always has something clanging inside. Foxx makes Bats somehow both frightening and funny--you're too scared to come close yet compelled to watch anyway, as if a deadly mambo had slithered into the dark room where you sit and you feel the need to keep tabs on its progress across the floor.
Beyond that it's all about the chase sequences and Wright for the most part doesn't disappoint: the car is a fine tuned keyboard that Baby plays with virtuoso skill. He touches brake and gas like opposing notes and spins the wheel like a violinist drawing bow across strings (pulls on the parking brake as if it were a vibrato arm and the whole vehicle shudders in ecstasy). Wright sets each chase to a different song with the cars skittering down the road like so many notes up and down staff lines, tempo and tone different each time. O he cheats on the editing a little--some of those tight turns look impossible when you replay them in your head--but the cheat isn't offensive, the whole chase sequence still makes sense.
Visually Wright's film is more effective than evocative. The camerawork does its job well; what it lacks is that je ne sais quoi, that little extra touch of eloquence that makes the images sing, mean more than what they are intended. Wright does makes multiple demands on his imagery, does manage to fulfill those demands with wit and verve but more in a narrative than poetic sense.
Maybe the most interesting idea Wright serves up is the sound design. Baby is that hoary cliche, the talented amateur who wants to keep his hands clean of the dirt he's involved in, and I get it that Wright wanted Elgort's blank-slate vulnerability as opposed to say his favorite actor Simon Pegg (who could hold his own against Spacey and Foxx anytime). Wright does help Elgort by playing off the character's tinnitus (a condition acquired during a childhood accident that also killed both his parents)--if much of the film is seen through Baby's eyes much of the film is also heard through Baby's ears. The chasing cars dance to the beat of the music he plays; the meetings often take place with the lips of each participant pointedly visible (so Baby can read them over his soundtrack); Baby flirts with Debora over the name of girls in songs he listens to; and even Baby's scenes with his foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) happens in an expressive silence, in mime, with Elgort and Jones' hands fluttering about like birds (they're so much in each other's head they don't really need dialogue). Baby listens attentively or tunes out one or the other person in his life, depending on how much he likes that person; like a filmmaker or song artist he puts himself in charge of his own soundtrack.
Music and hearing also play an interesting moral component (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to watch): Baby used music to drown out memory of his childhood trauma and music has also served to drown out the more distasteful elements of his half-criminal life. He refuses to deal with his situation hence his tendency to turn up the volume; when he finally decided to take some kind of moral action--when at a crucial point he gives an innocent bystander he knows a warning headshake--it's a moment without sound, as if Baby had decided to ignore his personal soundtrack and listen to his conscience instead.
Clever idea, and if Wright had the casting and imagery and narrative strategies to match his sound he might have something great, instead of a well-made above-average not-quite-perfect entertainment.
First published in Businessworld 8.3.17