There are movies that inspire eloquently-worded praise, and then there are movies like “Baby Driver.” One does not simply express enthusiasm through turn of phrase for something this awe-inspiring. All there is to do is gush, to actually try and articulate just how - to quote the film - “bananas” this beautiful, beautiful thing really is. If you hear only Trumpian run-on sentences from your friends after they see this film, take them as the highest possible praise, for “Baby Driver” absolutely earns any and all unrestrained verbiage. It is some of the most fun you will have this summer, and not just at the movie theater.
Left with tinnitus in his youth after a violent car crash killed his parents, Baby (Ansel Elgort) drowns out the hum in his drum with music from his collection of iPods and mixtapes. This keeps the young man alert and upbeat, but more importantly, it is the secret ingredient to his success as the best getaway driver in Atlanta. Baby owes heist planner Doc (Kevin Spacey) for stealing one of his cars a few years back, so he drives robbers, such as Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza González), and Bats (Jamie Foxx), to pay his debt. One day, Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a beautiful waitress at a local diner, and he instantly falls for her. He’s hopeful that their budding romance will take him far away from his past, but Doc is not quite ready to let his Baby go so soon. The driver reluctantly takes the wheel again so as to keep Debora out of harms way from Doc and his constituents.
Hardcore cinephiles will find that synopsis all too familiar, which it totally is. Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” hits the exact same notes, but the tunes of each could not be any more different. Dark, somber, and character driven is Refn’s thriller, while Edgar Wright’s actioner is both feverishly cool and fantastically warm, two feelings that most of today’s biggest blockbusters can’t quite seem to balance out with the same level of panache that Wright has. Not a single second here is wasted. Every frame presents an opportunity for Wright to go full throttle beyond the confines of the familiar narrative and setting. Employing a multitude of methods other than the trick of the cut, Wright finds new ways to construct his signature sight gags and incendiary emotional beats.
Unlike Wright’s earlier work, the dramatic edge of “Baby Driver” is much heavier, and the rip-roaring pace is slowed to cruising speed to settle viewers in with the characters, particularly Baby and Debora. On the surface, this may seem atypical of the writer/director known for sticking to lively rhythms, but Wright keeps us fixated on the quieter proceedings with whimsical dialogue and grade-A performances from his cast, setting us up for a phenomenal payoff. Elgort merges childlike naïveté and calculated coolness with the smallest of gestures. Spacey is a master with deadpan delivery. Even González, primarily known as a singer, holds her own exceptionally well. The standouts are Hamm and Foxx, the former killing it in the third act, while the latter brings a devilish charisma and menace every minute he’s on screen. James can’t quite elevate her character above what Wright has written for her, but she is infectiously charming nonetheless. What guy wouldn’t do a double take hearing her sing Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y?”
Stylistically, “Baby Driver” officially brings Wright full circle to “Shaun of the Dead,” the Brit’s initial hit that sent him on the road to greatness. Like the clever pointers inserted at the beginning of some of his previous films, everything that sets this apart from the competition was evident in Wright’s breakout comedy. Shaun’s stroll from his flat to the convenience store and back becomes Baby’s dance through the streets of Atlanta to the beat of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” and the pool stick beating to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” becomes the high-octane conclusion cut to Queen’s “Brighton Rock.” Of course, Queen isn’t the only source of musical action for Wright this time. Selections range from the Beach Boys, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - used in the stellar opening chase - the Commodores, and even Simon & Garfunkel’s very own “Baby Driver.” These tracks, ranging from delightful to killer, are the lifeblood of this film, commanding every cut, motion and physical gesture from beginning to end. When gunfire turns into percussion, it is immensely satisfying. At the end of the day, it might be one great gimmick, but by God if it isn’t one of the greatest that 21st century cinema has ever seen.