5 out of 5 stars.
A car pulls up to a bank. Three well-dressed but obviously crooked people get out and enter the building. A robbery ensues, and the criminals run back out to their car, their driver making a speedy getaway. Many movies have had similar openings, but it’s obviously from a couple minutes in that writer and director Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is going to be something different. While the criminals—Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal)—are inside the bank, their young driver, who goes simply by the name Baby (Ansel Elgort), begins enthusiastically singing along and dancing to the song Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song “Bellbottoms”, and continues to do so as they make their getaway, driving with earbuds in his ears and pulling off some of the most insane stunts with his car imaginable.
It turns out that as a child Baby was in a car accident that killed both his parents, and left him with a perpetual hum in one ear. He constantly listens music to drown out the hum, and in fact works to a soundtrack of sorts, so to most people he seems to come off as strange and aloof. He was forced long ago to work as a driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), the mastermind behind all these heists, after stealing one of his cars, but Baby has almost finished paying off his debt to Doc, and plans to get out of the business. Then he meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress who shares his love of music and desire to get away, and just driver off without any plan. But it turns out that Doc and the life of crime isn’t done with him yet, as Doc threatens Baby’s loved ones and pulls him back in for another robbery, one that is due to fail.
Wright is the creator of many a quirky, comedic film, several of which have become modern cult classics, from “Shaun of the Dead” to “Hot Fuzz” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” But, great though those movies are, “Baby Driver” is Wright’s crowning achievement. It’s violent, romantic, funny, energetic, and fresh from start to finish, but not in a dark or pseudo-realistic manner like, say, the 2011 film “Drive” (which is another fantastic movie, don’t get me wrong). “Baby Driver” is so over-the-top and darkly comical that it separates itself from reality just enough. Its characters are as exaggerated as the car chases and shootouts that permeate the story; take Spacey’s Doc, for instance, who coolly handles every situation with a smile that’s equal parts charming and creepy. Jamie Foxx seems to relish playing Bats, one of the thugs whose impulsive, violent tendencies threaten their work. CJ Jones has some brief but memorable scenes as Baby’s older, deaf foster father, and James turns her role into a leading lady with more complexity than she might initially appear to have. It becomes apparent as the story progresses that she isn’t as vulnerable as she seems, and she throws courageously herself into supporting Baby with no questions asked (which may seem a bit weird seeing as how she just met the guy, but that’s being nitpicky).
But the movie belongs to two actors in particular. The first is Jon Hamm as Buddy, a character who undergoes the most surprising arc of all, as the charismatic former Wall Street trader becomes increasingly unhinged throughout the film. The second, of course, is Ansel Elgort’s Baby. Elgort has appeared in several films before, mainly movies geared towards teens like “The Fault in Our Stars” or the “Divergent” series, but this is truly his breakout role. The audience gets to know so much about Baby not from the narrative, but from Elgort’s portrayal. From the start, we get an idea of how, despite his calm demeanor and the way he enthusiastically throws himself into his work as a driver, this world is not one that Baby wants to be a part of. He doesn’t watch the robberies, and is visibly disturbed when he sees his cohorts murder innocent people, even going so far as to prevent them from doing so on occasion. Through it all, he wants to do what is right, but he will also do what it takes to protect those he cares about.
“Baby Driver” is an action movie, yes, but it moves like a musical. There’s a long tracking shot after the film’s opening car chase that helps introduce us further to Baby and his love of music as he walks—nay, dances—down the street on his way to get coffee, not just dodging things that he comes across but interacting with them. There’s another scene in a laundromat with Baby and Debora in which the camera spins around them like a dance, colorful loads of laundry also spinning in the washing machines behind them. Wright shoots the car chases (as well as a foot chase in the second half of the film) like dance numbers: long tracking shots, with characters (and vehicles) spinning, jumping, and moving in time to the music—speaking of the music, the film’s soundtrack boasts 30 tracks from different decades and genres of music, ranging from popular hits and well-known artists (Queen, The Commodores, Barry White) to some more obscure tunes. Throughout the film, the music almost never stops, except when Baby stops playing it, another nice touch that puts the viewer in Baby’s shoes.
Again, those action scenes are so over-the-top they contribute to the overall feeling that this film is more fantasy than reality, along with Wright’s clever, and often hilarious, script. Even clichéd lines like “I was in love once” are delivered in a way that feels like the film is poking fun at itself: “Hey, we know this is crazy, but we’re doing it anyway.” It’s that kind of attitude that makes “Baby Driver” such a success, such a joy to watch, and one of the year’s best movies to boot.
Runtime: 113 minutes. Rated R.