Saturday, June 3, 2017

'Baby Driver' review

Edgar Wright is one of my favorite filmmakers on the planet, and it has been far too long since we saw a new movie from the wickedly creative director. My introduction to Wright's work came in 2013 in the form of The World's End, his pub crawl comedy that most consider to be his weakest effort (maybe it's nostalgia, but it just might be my favorite). I saw the finale to Wright's Cornetto Trilogy the weekend before I started high school (an odd bit of trivia that will come back around later), and its dazzling mixture of action and humor absolutely blew me away. I quickly caught up with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the films that round out the rest of the director's filmography. Each became an instant favorite of mine, solidifying my position as a full-blown Edgar Wright fanboy. In my opinion, he's a true auteur worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and the other pop visionaries of modern cinema.

Four long, crazy years after the release of The World's End, I'm graduating high school (told you it'd come back around), and Wright is finally back with Baby Driver. This was undoubtedly one of my most anticipated films of the last several years, and my expectations were through the roof. A heist film that combines insane action and musical wizardry, Baby Driver is pure Edgar Wright, an absolute blast that will certainly become an iconic masterpiece that I'll revisit time and time again. Radically different from everything that the director has made before while still carrying the distinct touch that makes his films so special, this car chase extravaganza is a pure dose of hardcore action that slapped a big nerdy grin on my face. After years of bending genre and creating cult classics, Wright takes on mainstream action and makes it his own, creating a euphoric experience that feels like the work of a singular visionary. Fans of Wright will surely be delighted, and there's a very good chance that this carefully crafted blast of pulp insanity will be his first true box office success. Wright just keeps hitting home runs, and it's magical to watch such a talented director work at the top of his game. 

To boil this film down to its essence, Baby Driver is the crime film you never knew you needed. It's the work of genius that could only come from Edgar Wright, a simultaneously bright and brutal heist movie that is entirely synced up to music. Every gunshot, every movement, every viscerally loud car chase- it's all set to the terrific soundtrack of its main character. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is one of the best getaway drivers on the planet, a genius behind the wheel who is paying off a debt by working for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a clinical, brilliant criminal mastermind. But here's what makes him unique- due to an accident as a kid, Baby has a constant ringing in his ears, which means that he always listens to music to drown it out. Baby carries around a variety of iPods for whatever mood he may be in, and when at his best, he executes with perfect precision.

But Baby is involved with some really bad people, and at his core, he isn't a bad kid at all. Baby meets and falls in love with Debora (Lily James), a friendly waitress at his favorite diner who also happens to be a big music fan. He starts to move away from Doc and his gang of thugs and criminals to focus on building a life for himself, making real money as a delivery driver and becoming closer and closer with Debora. But for his last big score, a heist that will see the team of four stealing millions in money orders from a local post office, Doc desperately needs Baby behind the wheel. Scared of what Doc and his thugs could do to his loved ones, Baby reluctantly agrees to drive one last time. But as things quickly go south, Baby will have to find a way out, fighting against the clock to escape the life that has turned him into one of the most wanted criminals in all of Atlanta.

Edgar Wright is a master of using genre to tell colorful and energetic stories, but like Tarantino and the other major filmmakers working today, his films never feel like rip-offs, instead taking on a life of their own. Since his career began, he has put his own spin on the zombie flick, the buddy cop comedy, the sci-fi invasion movie, and even the superhero genre, creating his own classics and making his career an eclectic blend that appeals directly to people like me. With Baby Driver, Wright is putting his stamp on the heist movie, taking cues from the crown jewels of the genre while making a film that could only come from his crazy, brilliant mind. It's Michael Mann's Heat designed as a musical, an action film that feels like it could have been made during the heyday of car chase movies in the 1970s. It's a film that hits the gas and doesn't look back, and it is one hell of a ride.

Wright is an incredibly funny writer and director, and like all of his other films, there's a fair bit of comedy in Baby Driver. But as the director himself said, this is a decidedly more intense and serious film. People die, the stakes are real, and the final act is incredibly tense. It's a big shift from what he has done in the past, but it's still the kind of movie that couldn't have been made by anyone else. Wright is no longer working with the fantasy of Scott Pilgrim or the parody of his Cornetto trilogy- this is a gritty, bold action movie. On paper, this is his most conventional film yet, but it's a testament to his skill as a filmmaker and his impressive control of action, emotion, and tone that Baby Driver feels nothing short of revolutionary. It's the kind of daringly original work that sends your jaw to the floor, a breathtaking tonic to the generic sameness that dominates today's Hollywood.

In a way, it's Wright's most complete film, the one that feels like his total vision executed to sheer perfection. Every music choice, every cut, every shot, every character arc- it all feels like pure Wright. The weakest part of the movie comes in the mid-section, when the filmmaker is forced to establish the stakes, losing some of his signature energy to the requirements of the narrative. But save for that one flaw, Baby Driver is simply a blast. The opening needle drop of "Bellbottoms" sets the stage, and if you're not on board after this bonkers setpiece, you might as well pack your bags and head home. This film is a breathless series of chases and gunfights, boosted by Wright's knack for dialogue and his ability to write characters that are instantly likable and clever. It's the kind of movie that invigorates your system, a joyous ride that is almost awe-inspiring in its carefully crafted kinetic insanity.

Baby is the perfect protagonist, and if this movie becomes a hit (which it really should), there's no doubt in my mind that the character will become a true icon. Ansel Elgort brings the mystery, the charm, the emotion, the sense of humanity- everything that this character needs to work. He's a great young actor, and this is a star-making performance. I wish that Lily James' Debora had a bit more development, but there's a connection between the characters and a chemistry with Elgort that pays off really well. Jamie Foxx does great work playing a person who can only be described as mentally insane (and maybe more than a bit evil), while Jon Hamm delivers a performance that is equally surprising and delightful. Eiza Gonzalez and young Brogan Hall impress in supporting roles, and oh, there's Kevin Spacey. One of the finest actors on the planet in an Edgar Wright movie- and he knocks it out of the park. He's sharp, precise, and funny as hell, and I adored his character.

And after making his most thematically-driven movie with The World's End, which confronted alcoholism, nostalgia, and the futile instincts of humanity, Wright has now turned around and made his most warmly emotional film. Baby's love for his mother is the crux, and his empathy for everyone around him is so important to the story that Wright is trying to tell. His relationship with his foster father (played wonderfully by CJ Jones) is almost tear-jerking at times, and he's always trying to be the best person he can be for Debora. Baby Driver never makes any excuses for crime and it doesn't let anyone off the hook, but Wright's script allows each character to make a choice between the right and wrong path, and it's interesting to see where they go. This results in some dynamite character moments, and it's that emphasis on the human touch that will make this an enduring classic for years to come.

But make no mistake- if you came for the musically-charged car chases, you won't be disappointed. Baby Driver is a mesmerizing achievement of action mastery, created by a filmmaker with such an immersive vision that it's easy to get lost in the madness. The soundtrack includes tracks from Queen, Blur, Focus, The Damned, Dave Brubeck, and more, and the fact that Wright knows exactly when to use each song is honestly astonishing. The individual heist scenes feel like cinematic masterpieces in their own right, as hyperkinetic and visually insane as anything I've seen in an action movie in a long time. And even the quiet moments are fast-paced, as the movie keeps grooving right along thanks to Wright's omnipresent soundtrack. There's nary a bit of silence in Baby Driver- this thing is surely one of the most tightly paced and energetic films in recent memory. It's a spectacle of pure fun, and it's as enjoyable as any action film you'll see this year.

For such a long review, my thoughts on Baby Driver can be condensed into one phrase- it's a blast. It has pretty much everything you could ever want in an action film, and for anyone who loves combining music and cinema as much as I do, something like Baby Driver is a dream come true. Some of these setpieces are ones for the ages, and while only time and multiple viewings will be able to determine where this places in the Wright canon, there's no doubt that this is another work of genius from a director who just can't seem to miss. The Baby Driver universe is one of music and color, where danger and action and romance lie around every corner. It's unpredictable and wildly satisfying, and it is as dynamic and complete as any action film this side of Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, Baby Driver is pop cinema at its finest.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Images courtesy of Sony

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