The opening moments of Baby Driver – a bank heist followed by an elaborately staged car chase sequence – sets the scene for what is to follow and introduces us to the particular skill set of the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young man with a tragic past who is beholden to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey, in perhaps his hammiest performance ever). Written and directed by Edgar Wright, Baby Driver is light on plot but packed with action and over-the-top, clichéd characters, yet remains an enjoyable enough experience for most of its running time. Whilst it certainly isn’t the comedic enterprise for which Wright (Hot Fuzz) is best known, everybody involved seems to be having a lot of fun and there seems little expectation that anybody should take any of it too seriously. The action sequences are plentiful and very impressive, without ever resorting to the sheer nonsense that renders the Fast and Furious films beyond redemption in their utter ridiculousness.
Many of the traditional action tropes are on display here, but it is the music that Wright wants us to believe sets this apart from other films, and the tunes certainly do bring an extra dimension to proceedings. Cursed with tinnitus following a childhood accident, Baby is never without earphones inserted in a bid to drown out the constant humming in his ears and it is his iPod playlist – featuring the likes of Queen, Young MC, The Damned and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – that drives the action. Spencer is one of several music artists (including hip-hop stars Big Boi and Killer Mike) who appear on screen for the merest of moments, while Sky Ferreira and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea take on much more significant roles. When the moment arrives that Baby has satisfied his debt with Doc, it will come as no surprise to anybody who has seen this scenario play out umpteen times on screen before that he finds himself unable to make a clean break. Throw a deaf, wheelchair-bound foster father (C.J. Jones) and a love interest (Lily James) into the mix and Baby is plunged into several spots of bother with both police and his criminal cohorts in hot pursuit. Amongst the collection of crims recruited by Doc to undertake the meticulously planned robberies are Bats (Jamie Foxx), Griff (Jon Bernthal), Eddie (Flea) and the loved-up Bonnie-and-Clyde duo Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), all of whom possess personalities that situate them on a spectrum that runs from somewhat unstable to dangerously deranged.
As Debora, the object of Baby’s desire, Lily James is a luminous presence. Despite being burdened with a role that is under-written, James soars as a waitress with visions of “heading west on 20 in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have”. Beyond that, she remains a mystery and, whilst she obviously sees something in Baby, we never get a back story for her that might help understand the connection. After all, he is not particularly charming and Elgort is very one-dimensional in his characterisation, which is perhaps intended to appear as stoicism in the face of the myriad adversities he has endured, but ends up as bland and aloof to the point where you are questioning whether it is Elgort’s lack of range as a performer that might be the problem as it is not the first time that the 23-year-old has been outshone by his female co-stars (The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent). Certainly, Baby’s music is the most interesting thing about him while Debora, on the other hand, is an intriguing mix of innocence and breathy sensuality; with her blonde ringlets and southern accent, she is sexy without ever being sexualised.
The editing from Jonathan Amos and Australia’s Paul Matchliss, both of whom have worked with Wright before, has created a masterful synchronicity between the driving and the music and this synergy of music and movement is the most accomplished element of the film. There is no doubt that Wright is paying homage to 1970’s films such as Walter Hill’s The Driver and, despite the fact that a lot of what we see here has been done before, there is an energy and a sense of reverence that make it an enjoyable romp in which the various stunt drivers are the real stars.