Baby Driver is one of the most technically sophisticated movies ever made – a hundred-miles-an-hour chase thriller that is cut like a musical, so that every on-screen action corresponds rhythmically to the soundtrack. When the cherubic getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) sashays along the street to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”, each sound fits the song precisely, from the bell on a passing bicycle to the beeps of an ATM and the rant of an overheard phone conversation. Words from the lyrics appear as peeling fly-posters; when Baby crosses the street, we hear the line “Hitch, hitch-hike, baby, across the floor”. He’s lost in music – it tempers the tinnitus he has suffered since a childhood car accident and helps him forget the terrible implications of his job.
Edgar Wright, the gifted British director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, used this giddy gimmick in his 2002 pop promo for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”. The concept has legs, or rather wheels, and it takes a good hour for the viewer to notice that the film has no other ideas and that a boring shoot-out choreographed to music is still a boring shoot-out.
In his screenplay, Wright trades knowingly in archetypes but without the animating force of, say, Walter Hill, the director of The Driver, who pops up here as a court interpreter. We have met these characters before, from Baby, the sweet kid running with the wrong crowd, to his associates: the mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom Baby is paying off a debt one job at a time; the hot-blooded Bonnie-and-Clyde couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González); and the psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is marked out as irredeemable from the moment he expresses disdain for music.
Baby’s deaf, twinkly-eyed, wheelchair-bound foster father, Joseph (C J Jones), is put predictably in peril once things turn nasty, along with Baby’s sweetheart, Debora (Lily James). Something dies in a film, especially in the male-dominated action genre, whenever a woman is used as a bargaining chip between men.
As with the pop-culture addicts of Wright’s Channel 4 sitcom Spaced and the gamer heroes of his comic-book romp Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Baby’s obsession dictates the look, tone and detail of the film. When his apartment is ransacked, we see the albums from which Baby Driver’s soundtrack has been culled (Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack). During a chase on foot, Baby ducks in on one side of a parked car and escapes out through the other, just as the Beatles did in A Hard Day’s Night. A bank cashier says that she works “nine to five, like Dolly”, and Darling invokes Gwen Stefani by spelling out the word “bananas”. Baby samples his accomplices’ voices on the electro tracks that he makes in his spare time and recycles in conversation dialogue he has picked up from TV. There is a deliberately closed-off feel to him and to the film; nothing unrelated to music can get through.
The movie tries to show the dangers of this cognitive dissonance. There’s a faintly unsettling scene in which Baby anaesthetises himself to an unsavoury task by blasting out “Easy” by the Commodores. Yet such notes of caution would be more resounding if there were something at stake unconnected to movies and music – if stark reality ever broke through shockingly, even for a moment.
At least there is a palpable warmth in the performances. Spacey is unexpectedly refreshing, evenly balancing the avuncular and the menacing. And Elgort, who looks like a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a pout, has a winning, weightless charm.
But excitement is Wright’s speciality, and when he tries for emotion it comes off as ersatz. The car chases are among the most spectacular ever shot, as hair-raising as those in Bullitt or Ronin but with an extra playground playfulness. Insinuating his red car between two others of the same colour speeding along the freeway, Baby transforms a simple pursuit into a high-speed version of the old “find the lady” card trick. Foot to the floor, the film roars, but it only really works in fifth gear. It’s a clear case of two legs bad, four wheels good.
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague