Infantile but insanely propulsive, Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is a live-action cartoon with a nasty edge—essentially a film noir of the old school, but one done up in blazing, very un-noirish color and jokiness, though much of the humor is of an extremely dark variety. Much of a piece with his earlier films, it will appeal to Wright’s existing fan base, but since it’s more accessible than they were, it should—in the way of a similarly “cool” picture like “John Wick”—expand on it as well.
The basic outline of Wright’s script might have come from a pulp novel by Jim Thompson or Cornell Woolrich. The protagonist is a troubled man, tormented by the memory of his parents’ death in the auto crash he survived and trapped in a life of crime by circumstances. Deeply in debt to a mysterious boss who plans major heists, he’s forced to pay off what he owes by serving as a getaway driver. The boss teams him up with hardened accomplices for each new job, and he’s just about to earn his way out when he meets a waitress and immediately falls for her. He hopes finally to be able to go straight and speed off to a new life with her, but the boss pulls him back into the business by threatening her, and when the latest caper goes sour, he becomes a target not just of the cops but of his partners in crime. Can he—and his new love—survive?
There’s not a great deal new here, but Wright embellishes the old skeleton with an abundance of flash and dash, not just in terms of the color palette and hyperkinetic style (especially, but not only, in the chases—both in cars and on foot) but the aforementioned dark humor, as well as violence and—most of all—music. The hero, named Baby—which seems oddly appropriate since he’s played by boyish Ansel Elgort (of “The Fault in Our Stars”)—lives, and drives, according to a playlist of songs that he’s constantly listening to through earphones. It’s explained that he requires the aural input to cover the tinnitus he’s suffered from since childhood, but whether or not that’s the case, he plans every getaway drive according to the series of songs he’s pre-recorded for the occasion, many of which we hear at loud volume.
How Baby gained his expertise behind the wheel is never explained, but he’s an absolute miracle in that department, maneuvering fast-moving cars through crowded streets and past pursuing cops with amazing nonchalance. No wonder Doc (Kevin Spacey) considers him his lucky charm in the elaborate heists he plans. In the first we’re shown, a bank robbery, he’s teamed with a couple named Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Elza Gonzalez), along with Griff (Jon Bernthal), and brings them back safely to split the loot. Then he meets Debora (Lily James), who shares his musical tastes, and perceives another option in life. The insistence of his wheelchair-bound foster-father Joseph (CJ Jones) that he reconsider the path he’s now on reinforces his choice, and after another job, an armored car heist—in which he’s joined by Eddie No-Nose (Flea), hyper JD (Lanny Joon) and the appropriately-named Bats (Jamie Foxx)—goes badly, he decides Joseph is right. Fortunately, that heist squares Baby with Doc, and he thinks himself free to go straight.
Such is not to be, however: Doc intrudes on Baby’s date with Debora, threatening her and Joseph unless the conflicted Baby drives in a hit on a post office. This time his partners will be Buddy, Darling and Bats, and even in the prep stage things go awry, when a firearm purchase from a pint-sized gun-runner called The Butcher (Paul Williams) ends up in a massacre. That almost scuttles the operation, but it proceeds anyway, and ends in catastrophe due to Baby’s concern for innocent bystanders and Bats’ brutal instability. In the melee that results, Baby will be pitted against Buddy, who’s intent on revenge, and the Atlanta PD, who are also looking for payback, while trying to protect Debora and Joseph.
This is all basically grindhouse stuff, but Wright does it up with such cinematic gusto that while it can’t escape being rather cheesy, especially in the splashily prolonged final confrontation, it’s also exuberantly flamboyant, just as “Wick” was. He, cinematographer Bill Pope and editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos choreograph each individual sequence—not just the chases but even dialogue scenes—with such panache that they come across like the dances they sometimes are, and production designer Marcus Rowland and costumer Courtney Hoffman contribute bolts of color that make many moments feel like neon-suffused moving billboards. The effect can be visually exhausting at times, but mostly it’s exhilarating.
The cast does its job reflecting Wright’s vision. Spacey doesn’t do much that he hasn’t done before (in “21,” most notably), but Elgort employs his gangly frame and charming smile—as well as his ability to go suddenly solemn, or simply naive—to make Baby an endearing figure, and over-the-top turns from Foxx, Hamm, Gonzalez, Joon and Williams add pizzazz to the mix. Bernthal, Jones and especially James play at a lower volume, but provide good contrast to the more extravagant turns.
“Baby Driver” arguably spins out of control in the last act, but overall it makes for a wild ride that provides the sort of juice you’d expect from a top-of-the-line muscle car.