Baby DriverReviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 06/28/17 01:00:00
(Worth A Look)
Edgar Wright is to movies what any good, self-respecting DJ is to music: a connoisseur, a master of the form who understands its history and can effortlessly combine the DNA of several genres to create something new, something that will enthrall and surprise the audience and keep their blood pumping from beginning to end in the same way that a DJ keeps his audience dancing non-stop with his or her remixes. It helps that Wright is also a music lover who digs deep in his record collection and playlists to pull out those tunes that will not only elevate but also propel the plot of his films. Music is front and center in his new film “Baby Driver”: not only does music drive (pun unintended) the story but it also defines and informs its characters’ lives. The action sequences are even choreographed the beats of a specific song. It is, in fact, the closest a film has ever come in portraying the dominant role music plays in our lives.Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the ultimate music lover. Not only does he own different iPods for each mood, he also records bits of conversations with his microcassette recorder that he then turns into mixes and melodies with his samplers and keyboards. The music also helps him deal with his tinnitus —product of a car accident that claimed his parents’ lives (his mother dreamt of becoming a singer)— by drowning out the whine in his ear. He is also Doc’s (Kevin Spacey at his smarmiest, drollest best) designated driver; Doc is one of Atlanta’s top crime lords and poor Baby owes him due to a past indiscretion (the reasons behind the indiscretion are the subject of one of the film’s best monologues). Baby loves to execute his escape routines to the beat of a specific song —in the case of the film’s opening heist, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosions’ “Bellbottoms.” Those opening ten to fifteen minutes are far more exciting, far more full of adrenaline than any of the stunts in the last entry of the “Fast and Furious” series, a series too caught up in its Bondesian pretensions to remember what makes a chase sequence truly exciting. And this one has it all: “Bullitt”-like jumps, squeezes into tight places, drifts, cars of the same color and make driving side by side on an Atlanta highway to confuse the cops, all choreographed with the nimbleness of a Gene Kelly dance routine. And just as you are beginning to pick your jaw up from the floor, Wright immediately delivers another delightful sequence as Baby turns his walk to a nearby coffee shop to pick up some coffee for his accomplices into a solo dance routine, all shot mostly in a single take. I love “La La Land” but…“La La Land,” eat your heart out.
Baby is one job away from paying off his debt to Doc. And, as it befits the genre, this is the one job that could go wrong, especially since Doc has hired the trigger-happy and appropriately nicknamed Bats (Jamie Foxx) to pull it off. Bats doesn’t take too well to Baby’s silent-man-behind-dark-glasses demeanor. It bugs the living daylights out of him; he thinks Baby is hiding something behind those dark glasses and earpods. But when this new bank robbery ends with a couple of dead people and several smashed vehicles, it’s Baby’s expertise behind the wheel that saves Bats’ and his cohorts’ hides.
Debt apparently paid, Baby can now focus on his life and in providing his deaf-mute foster father Joe (CJ Jones) with a better life. Baby’s path has also crossed that of Debora’s (Lilly James), a waitress at a local diner with big dreams who shares an equal passion for music. Here is where Wright’s mastery in mixing genres should pay off. And Wright almost pulls it off, for their sweet, Andy Hardy-Polly Benedict romance provides a striking contrast to the far more interesting, lusty coupling of Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez), part of the crew of thieves who participated in that opening heist. But while Elgort projects a magnetic mix of self-assurance, attitude and, that word again, sweetness, James here lacks the magnetism, mystique and gumption of Ramona Snow (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” and Sam (Rosamond Pike) in “The World’s End.”
This middle section sags a bit but fortunately there is a final heist to pull off and this is where it all goes straight to hell for Baby as Doc foolishly brings together Bats and the more level-headed (or so we are led to think) Buddy and Darling for a robbery at a local post office. Wright literally pulls the rug from beneath our feet as he builds the tension by thrillingly undermining our expectations. Just as we think “Baby Driver” will turn in one direction, Wright’s script takes a 180-degree turn. It’s a third act that relies on its characters’ smarts and instincts, each decision grounded by the moment and the circumstances they find themselves in, leading to a climax in a parking lot that out-Woos John Who’s standoff and duel between two drivers in the director’s cut of “Bullet in the Head” (1990), a movie that deserves to be rediscovered.
What separates Wright as an action filmmaker from his contemporaries is his commitment to the real, the organic. No matter how well choreographed these sequences may be, how well edited they are to the music, there is a physicality, a sense of danger, of lives exposed that the “Fast and Furious” series and their ilk have seemed to gloss over. The above reference to John Woo is not gratuitous for he also choreographes his action sequences with a sense of grace, with a clear idea of space and direction. But Wright is also tipping his hat at the masters of action filmmaking, specifically William Friedkin and Walter Hill who wrapped their thrill rides around nuanced and conflicted characters like Baby, Bats and Buddy (and, come to think of it, the fact that the nicknames of the hero and his antagonists all start with B is more than a coincidence…there is a method to Wright’s madness).
“Baby Driver” even has an old school feel when it comes to how his characters listen to music. No mention is made of Spotify or Bandcamp or any other digital platform that delivers or produces music. Baby may possess several iPods but each is carefully curated from is his ample record collection. He still records his music in cassettes and, like any good DJ, purchases more vinyls than CDs. Baby would have felt right at home with the Chicago record shop owners of “High Fidelity”.It’s easy to forget that Wright’s much-misunderstood “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” is as much music-driven as it is video game-driven. But the songs in “Baby Driver” have been more carefully selected: they play as much of a role in defining and shaping these characters as Wright’s smart dialogue. There’s one scene in particular that, for me, encapsulated Wright’s love affair with music and his belief in the role it plays in our lives: midway through the film, Baby and Buddy each share an earpod to listen to Queen’s “Brighton Rock”. Their smiles, as they listen to that unmistakable guitar solo, is worth more than a thousand words and car crashes. It is a shared moment between two music lovers who appreciate good musicianship. Their smiles are also ours when we listen, over and over, to that tune that means so much to us, that brings back memories and that makes us yearn for what once was and what, one day, may still be.
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