Now that Baby Driver mania has stopped taking the internet by storm, is it safe to come out of hiding and confess I didn’t think it was Edgar Wright’s Best Film Ever? It had its strong points and it’s certainly better than The World’s End, which didn’t click with me at all…
Short version for the unfamiliar: Experienced bank robbers are recruited by an older tough guy with a long IMDb entry to go bank-robbing using masks and silly pseudonyms. One of them is not quite like the others, though he seems to fit in for the longest time. Eventually things begin to go wrong, honor among thieves is discarded, casualties begin to mount, but the soundtrack is increasingly awesome because it’s both super catchy and filled with songs you haven’t heard in ten other movies or six times a day on the radio.
So that’s Reservoir Dogs and arguably the original Point Break, then. Ansel Elgort, the guy from The Fault in Our Stars, is “Baby” the driver (not his real name), a rapscallion with an acceleration addiction, a permanent position as getaway driver, and headphones he never turns off because they drown out his tinnitus — hence the soundtrack composed almost entirely of the source music blasting in his ears. When he meets his one true love in a sweet-natured waitress (Downton Abbey‘s Lily James), Baby decides he wants out…but his longtime boss (Kevin Spacey) won’t accept his resignation because he’s the best there is at what he does. Can Baby escape this life of whizzing bullets and screeching rubber and spend the rest of his days road-tripping with Debora, or is he cursed to suffer Fast & the Furious jokes for all eternity?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Spacey insists on rotating crew from job to job, welcoming smaller appearances from the likes of Jon Bernthal (Shane! The Punisher!) and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Back to the Future II. Featuring more prominently are Mad Men’s Jon Hamm playing a more desperate and deadly Don Draper, and Academy Award Winner Jamie Foxx basically playing the Mr. Blonde role — the intense, incorrigible, psychopathic showboat who’s all job skills and no people skills.
From the Department of Future Stars I Don’t Recognize Yet, Eisa Gonzalez (From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series) will one day make marquees as the costar of the long-stewing Robert Rodriguez/James Cameron anime adaptation Alita: Battle Angel. Here, she’s the Other Woman in the Film, a fellow robber and Hamm’s partner.
From the Department of Forgotten Actors Reminding Us They’re Still Here and Available, because every Tarantino-esque caper should have one, ’70s musician and game show guest star Paul Williams has a memorable scene as a gunrunner who nails a bizarre sales soliloquy coached entirely in high-end pork-product metaphors. This was doubly fascinating because I honestly didn’t know Williams was still alive.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the Story to choose from:
1. Bank robbing is wrong.
2. Stealing cars from innocents is wrong when you have to look them in the eye.
3. Driving fast is cool. We hear it might be illegal, but that’s not for our characters to judge.
4. It’s not cool to let someone think their contract’s up only to tell them they can’t walk away after all.
5. Be nice to your coworkers or they’ll make you regret it.
6. Standing by and letting people get killed, when you’re in a position to save them, is bad. Just ask Uncle Ben.
7. If you’re caught and held accountable for your crimes, accept your punishment like a gentleman and maybe someday you can move on to a better life.
8. Listening to headphones in a meeting feels rude even if you can hear everyone around you just fine.
Otherwise this flick is all about the tough guys trying to out-tough each other and all that speeding. That dizzying, intermittent speeding.
Nitpicking? Frankly, I expected at least 60% more driving. After a pair of opening chase sequences that give the Bourne free-for-alls a run for the money, a long swath of story — possibly an entire hour — passes by without a single car chase. By and large the stunt sequences we do get have a certain escape-velocity thrill to them and keep the blood all adrenalized and whatnot, but much of that sensation is rigged through rigorous, relentless split-second editing no less shredded than the average Transformers processed movie product. Baby‘s coherence-to-gobbledygook ratio is better on average, but in general the Fast/Furious folks need not be concerned for their crown.
Occasionally riders wear seat belts; occasionally they don’t. Statistically speaking, this film’s body count should’ve been much higher and the entire main cast dead by at least twenty minutes before the actual end.
Anyone who dislikes characters from other movie eras may have no use for Debora the waitress, the romantic interest and reminder of the normal life Baby’s been missing. Debora clings tightly to Baby well beyond the point where any rational modern woman would’ve decided their suitor was bound to get them arrested or severely damaged. But her faith in Baby is unshaken against all odds because of whatever wonderful qualities she sees in him, such as knowing of a song with her name in it.
At one point everything that can go wrong during heist prep goes wrong, but everyone goes ahead with it anyway despite all signs pointing to doom, basically on the say-so of the least trustworthy crew member at that exact fateful moment. They should’ve had their heads examined for going on a plan like that when they weren’t 100% sure of their crew.
Insert mandatory paragraph in which this old man reminds readers every F-word is like a jarring CD-skip to his old-fashioned ears.
So what’s to like? Wright has apparently seen every VHS B-movie Tarantino’s ever seen, especially Tarantino’s own. Wright’s rendition is slighter by comparison, relying less on finely honed dialogue and more on attitude and spinning wheels. Baby, ostensibly the core of the proceedings, seems checked out half the time and pales before the mighty acting chops of older pros like Hamm and Foxx, who take turns commandeering the screen with unflinching machismo as they quarrel over bank-job procedures and team disloyalty, with Foxx narrowly winning the film effectively by terrorizing the most characters. Everyone else tends to hang back while those two guys do their thing — even Spacey, relaxing as a more affable crime lord whose pulse rate rarely rises above 85 until and unless his money’s at risk.
When the cars are on screen, they’re keen to see for anyone who prefers movie-style auto-racing to real-world repetitive lapping, but Baby Driver was nowhere near the two-hour no-brakes metal machine marathon I felt I was promised. Its highest highs are nowhere near the peaks of Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or Hot Fuzz, still my all-time favorite Wright-fest. I suppose I should laud this for not being a sequel, reboot, or comic book adaptation, but I’m tired of throwing a party every time a 21st-century production steps over that really, really low bar.
Regardless, I do remain grateful for being wowed by the soundtrack even though I’d never heard of 80% of its songs. To me that’s a compliment and a treat, as repetitive music has become a pet peeve in my steadily advancing years. I don’t even like ringtones because then you’re forced to listen to the same soundbites over and over and over and over every time folks dial your digits. Timing all the songs to as many onscreen actions as possible was a nice conceit, though it was odd to see critics in standing ovation for what music videos have been accomplishing for decades.
And yet I left the theater jazzed at this fun assembly of rare gems, and still carrying some lingering buzz away from Baby’s final harrowing conflicts. It was a nice bit of magical timing that flipping the satellite radio dial on my way home happened to pull up the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘N Roll Radio”, the perfect coda for the experience. If it were up to me, movie soundtracks henceforth would be required to include at least one token Ramones song, and no filmmaker would be allowed to use Smash Mouth’s “All Star” for the rest of my life. (I can dream.)
Barely related postscript: “Hamm and Foxx” would be a great title for a wacky kiddie show.
How about those end credits? There’s no scene after the Baby Driver end credits, but stubborn attendees like me can hang out to speed-read the details of the 43 songs interspersed throughout the film, including a few of Baby’s DJ mixes and a handful of times when characters sing lines from songs not playing on any devices.
For anyone who keeps their emotions cut off from the world, whether by drowning them out with off-putting earbuds music or by devouring them with raw attitude, at the very, very end is a two-word special message once we’re past all the names and their copious thanks to the city of Atlanta:
…which I thought was unique to this film because it felt like a callback to a particular pair of conversations, but then we saw the same message appear after the Spider-Man Homecoming end credits, so maybe “BE MOVED” is Sony’s Special Marketing Catchphrase of the Year. Because, like, being unmoved is for the worst criminals, stone cold losers and Universal fans.