Edgar Wright has never met a film genre he couldn’t transform. He took the slow-walking world of zombies and infused it with high energy comedy to create “Shawn of the Dead.” The right turn he made in what appeared to be a sleepy village cop movie with “Hot Fuzz” created cinematic whiplash.
Now, the director-writer has tackled the rather driven-into-the-ground genre of fast cars with “Baby Driver.” It starts out looking to be nothing more than a fast story of furious thugs, but Wright quickly turns it into a blend of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The collision of two such diverse scenarios sounds like what would happen if someone made a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich. As with all of Wright’s work, all you have to do is give his twisted sense of filmmaking a few moments and the beauty of contradictions becomes a thing of beauty.
“Baby Driver” starts with a typical bank robbery and car chase. Behind the wheel is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young man who doesn’t look old enough to drive. It takes only a few seconds to realize that Baby’s a maestro behind the wheel, treating his run from the cops like a choreographed dance. Part of that comes from Baby constantly listening to music to drown out the permanent hum in his head created during an accident when he was a child.
The brains behind the group is Doc (Kevin Spacey), a no-nonsense businessman who plans each crime with the skill of a general going into battle. He never works with the same band of thieves except for Baby, who has become a good luck charm.
Among the criminals he hires are Buddy (Jon Hamm), a white collar money wizard who took to a life of crime after becoming obsessed with white powder. Buddy’s love, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), is as deadly with her sexuality as she is with her guns. And then there’s Bats (Jamie Foxx), a psychopath who settles any friendly or unfriendly dispute with a bullet.
The plan for one last big score begins to show cracks when Baby’s focus becomes split between the job and Deborah (Lily James), a southern belle waitress whose dream is to hit the open road without a plan. This longing for independence infects Baby and he must work his way out of criminal commitments that stand in his way.
“Baby Driver” is filled with fascinating characters who could all be the focus of their own movie. Wright manages to not only stage car chase scenes that rival – and at times surpass – anything from the “Fast and Furious” franchise but also finds time to spotlight each creepy character. Foxx is particularly strong as he keeps Bats just on the fine line between sanity and insanity. He’s a guy you can depend on to have your back and also stab you in the back.
The key is Elgort. Wright jokes he had the inspiration for “Baby Driver” before Elgort was born but had to wait for him to grow up before he could make the movie. There were other factors that slowed the film getting made but the timing was right as Elgort is just young enough that Baby looks like he should be sitting in a high school freshman English class but can play the role with enough intensity to make Baby come across as a highly skilled driver and deeply caring boyfriend.
Elgort’s best known for his role in the “Divergent” series and for the heart-squeezing “The Fault in Our Stars.” This is by far the most complicated role he’s played and he shifts into high acting gear to handle the plot course.
All this happens because Wright brings such a unique and compelling vision to all of his work. In “Baby Driver” the smart details range from a long unedited opening sequence where the words of the song playing in Baby’s ears come to life in the background to using everyday cars instead of the million dollars rides that populate other car chase offerings. Wright shows that the more a story is grounded in reality, the more an audience will connect with the story.
Even the soundtrack of tunes comes from a mix of musical genres that should never be played together. Because of Wright’s unique vision, this song selection comes across as the perfect background music for this wild and crazy world. The music is so unique, it’s almost another member of the cast.
Wright’s ability to modify movie genres gives his work a broader appeal. The unfettered action sequences of “Baby Driver” will entertain anyone who has a need for speed in their films. At the same time, the young romance story is so sweet and real that it will tug at the heart of anyone who pines for productions where people fall in love.
From now on when a movie takes a standard film genre and twists it into a wild new version, the people behind it should be said to have all the Wright stuff. He’s the master of such motion picture manipulation as demonstrated through “Baby Driver.”
3.5 out of 4 stars
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez, Kevin Spacey.
Director: Edgar Wright
Rating: R for violence, language
Length: 90 minutes.