Very early in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, as Doc (Kevin Spacey) sketches out the plans to a heist on a chalkboard, he explains to his crew that the driver “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus and chooses to drown out the constant hum by listening to music. Once he’s done with the obvious exposition, he puts down the chalk and exclaims, “Wow, I drew this entire map while explaining that. I’d say that’s pretty fucking impressive!” Thus Wright places his tongue firmly in-cheek, and we immediately understand the tone of the film: weird, energetic, and not taking itself too seriously.
Baby Driver is positively fueled by the music of its soundtrack, all of which is diegetic (i.e., it exists in the world of the film). Baby chooses the proper song for driving getaway, times it perfectly, and then the action seems to be dictated by the rhythm of the music. When he isn’t driving, he’s still listening to music, and it is often a source of bonding between characters. The music will even blatantly comment on the drama of a scene, which is surprisingly spot-on on account of so many songs having “baby” in them (a fact that is mentioned in the film).
The plot is that of a pretty basic heist film. Baby is indebted to Doc, so he drives in order to pay off the boss. The heists themselves are pretty disposable, and of the smash-and-grab variety. We only see them from Baby’s perspective in the car, so the real action starts when it is time to escape. On his path to getting square with Doc, Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a beautiful waitress who is clearly into him. Of course, then it’s time for one more heist.
As fun as the chase scenes are, the heists aren’t as important as the characters. Elgort drives the film as Baby. He’s got the perfect mixture of bravado and charm, and isn’t shy about dancing along to the beat. James is a perfect companion, challenging Baby with wordplay and putting his love of music on the spot. There are three main heisters, all referred to by pseudonyms: Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) and the boss Doc. Baby also takes care of his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).
It is certainly a strong ensemble, and everyone has their moments. Bats is the crazy one, and he gets a few choice maniacal speeches to the crew. He and Baby butt heads fairly often, as Baby is driving mostly for the money and Bats is more of an agent of chaos. Buddy and Darling have extreme sexual energy between them, and it pays off in surprising ways. In fact, there are a lot of surprises in the way these characters go through their arcs and interact with each other. Most action movies struggle with characterization, at least from the standpoint of being surprising and novel, but Baby Driver succeeds in spades.
The superlatives keep coming: the action in Baby Driver is exhilarating, both during the car chases and during some of the shootouts. There are a few reasons why the action works here and doesn’t feel like meaningless time-wasting.
It starts with the fact that 95% of the action is practical and in-camera, with the CG work all being used to touch-up slight details. The insistence to actually perform the stunts lends a significant sense of realism to the action, much like we saw in Mad Max: Fury Road a couple of years ago. Now, there’s nothing quite as insane going on in Baby Driver, but the dedication to practical effects has the same result: we feel the realism and the stakes, so each chase is breathtaking.
Related to the stakes and actually being interested in what is happening on the screen, Wright is also able to take advantage of the actions scenes for characterization. In the opening scene, we see Baby dancing and mouthing along with the words for his song, making clear that he has a easy-going and jubilant type of outlook on life. Later, through some subtle little shifts, we begin to understand that Baby really doesn’t like crime and violence – he just likes driving. When your action sequences teach the audience more about the characters, they are not just interesting and entertaining, but crucial for the development of the story.
It’s also wonderful how Wright keeps everything frantic and full of energy, but also perfectly understandable. The geography of the action sequences is always clear, so that even when something surprising happens, the spectator understands where it came from, what it was, and why it makes sense. It is very easy to go too far over-the-top and lose the audience in your frenetic action scene, and most failed action films struggle with precisely this. Baby Driver has no such issues.
All of these elements result in a wonderfully peculiar tone for the film. It is at once surreal, energetic and crazy, anxious, and humorous. There’s a bizarre confluence of light comedy and grisly violence as the film approaches its climax, but by allowing itself to be driven by the music, everything works out to some kind of haphazard equilibrium.
Baby Driver is the perfect kind of genre mash-up, reminding of other stellar films like True Romance or The Nice Guys. The film has a strong sense of direction and a keen aesthetic driving force in its music and soundtrack, which you don’t often see dictating the narrative and thematic direction too often – especially in an action film. Edgar Wright has a masterpiece on his hands here, unifying character, action, tone, and visual appeal into a single spectacular vision.