A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to see an early screening of Edgar Wright’s latest movie, Baby Driver.
The film follows a teenage getaway car driver code-named “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) as he attempts to leave behind his life of crime and win the affections of a waitress named Debora (Lily James). Baby is something of a driving prodigy, and has proven himself an asset his boss (Kevin Spacey) can’t afford to let go. Baby’s true passion, however, is music, as its the only way to drown out his chronic tinnitus. The movie is an effortless blend of action and comedy, with an emphasis on action (especially in the latter half of the film). While some elements have a hint of camp or parody, it is generally a straight-forward action film.
The stunt-work displayed in the movie’s numerous car-chase sequences rival the best of any captured on film. Baby’s virtuosity behind the wheels does at times strain credulity, but next to the cartoonish alternate realities of The Fast and the Furious his precise drifting and preternatural reflexes seem downright grounded. The action isn’t all constrained to high-speed pursuits and vehicular stunt-work. Reversing expectations, the film’s climax kicks off with a foot-pursuit, followed by multiple shootouts and hand-to-hand combat. While much of the run-time is dedicated to full-blown action sequences, enough time is spent building tension and suspense that the more explosive scenes feel earned. There’s plenty of dessert here, but it’s just a part of a balanced breakfast.
The true star of Baby Driver is director Edgar Wright, and he knows it. The creative, stylistic and fun-loving director has made a name for himself through comedy, but has also proven a deft hand for action. Baby Driver is his most restrained film, taking itself mostly seriously, and leaving behind some of the manic anarchy of his farcical past. His high-energy style still comes through, however, making every scene of dialogue as engaging as the intense and inventive action sequences. With a main character who rarely speaks, Wright takes “show-don’t-tell” to a new level. Long sequences of the film–including the first seven or eight minutes–have no dialogue at all, capturing the audience only through distinct and thoroughly planned visuals. The movie has a distinct rhythm, synchronizing every move to match the soundtrack. Much of the film plays like an intricately choreographed music video, the characters and actions enslaved by the beat of whatever song is playing. Every aspect of the film is subservient to this vibrantly original device, giving the movie strong forward momentum, while making nearly every moment enjoyable for its own sake. However, toward the end of the film, extended action sequences and a lack of shifting dynamics create a tinge of audience exhaustion. Wright has always had a weakness of overly-long third acts, and Baby Driver is no exception. A satisfying ending and consistent high energy make this weakness mostly forgivable.
As a long-time fan of Wright, I was looking forward to this movie since it was first announced. It’s been nearly four years since The World’s End (not to be confused with the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie), which means its been four years since I’ve had my fix of hyper-stylized rapid-fire action comedy. In some ways Baby Driver could be seen as Wright’s response to Marvel after leaving 2015’s Ant-Man over “creative differences”. One of my biggest issues with Marvel is their interest in creating a consistent cinematic universe, at the expense of personal creative expression. It’s not hard to imagine why Wright’s outside-the-box approach might’ve scared a few studio heads. Baby Driver is perhaps his way of proving that he can direct a more conventional action movie, while maintaining his signature style.
The problem with Baby Driver is that it eschews substance in pursuit of pure entertainment. After seeing the film I didn’t think about it for very long at all, it just didn’t raise any particularly interesting questions for me. I’m not quite ready to say there’s nothing beneath the film’s surface, but if there is it must be below the somewhat shallow and mostly predictable story-line. This lack of a deeper meaning probably wouldn’t bother me at all, except that this is an Edgar Wright movie. The Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) are hilarious, well-executed action movies with a fully realized anti-authoritarian subtext that’s readily apparent to casual film-goers. While Scott Pilgrim vs the World was less focused, and more creditable to author Bryan Lee O’Malley than to Wright, it too deals with complex themes, such as selfishness in relationships, self-esteem, self-reflection and becoming a more mature person.
The lack of depth seems to stem from Baby himself. All of his battles are external, none of his problems are really of his own making. He has no character flaws to overcome, and has only to outwit and outmaneuver his enemies. This works on an entertainment level, since Baby becomes nearly a parody of the strong silent action hero archetype. We as an audience still connect with him, and he makes enough mistakes to avoid being a true Gary Stu. However, his mistakes are miscalculations rather than moral failings. Baby lets us to relate to him and become invested in his success, but fails to make us examine our own lives.
And that’s okay. Baby Driver is summer movie above everything else, and there’s nothing wrong with expertly crafted feel-good entertainment. In the past, however, Wright has been able to have his cake and eat it too. This time around his focus was on making a fun and exciting action film, which he undoubtedly achieved. Maybe next time he’ll deliver something more complex. In the meantime, go see Baby Driver.