For a young fellow like Baby, music is the milk of life. Mixed and remixed, culled from the ambient noise of human motion and refitted into a soundtrack that guides his every step and every action, life has a rhythm and a composition that he will not deny himself. When he walks down the street, his ears eternally plugged into a set of ear-buds, even the most rudimentary task is backed by a piece of music he has compiled just for the occasion. When he is in the company of human conversation, he uses an old mini-recorder to record conversations that he then later recombobulates into a musical tapestry. When his boss is asked about Baby’s mental capacity, he responds “Was he slow?” and Baby later turns that phrase into a private musical interlude. It’s all for a cause, you see, not just battling a case of tinnitus but it has become an all-consuming obsession. Baby’s lust for music becomes our lust for music and his compositions are still ringing in this critic’s head. That’s a good sign.
You can have your clanking and clattering robots and . . . whatever Tom Cruise was doing in The Mummy, I’ll take director Edgar Wright’s lyrical and beautifully composed Baby Driver, thank you very much. This is an action movie, a fun action movie edited and orchestrated within an inch of its life and reminding us of what movies use to be – a tingle of fun and energy and originality. It has been put together by Wright and his editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss with precision and skill – they deserve an Oscar nomination. They have fashioned a heist movie, one put together with style and a sense of fun. For once, no one is trying to build an extended universe. Baby’s universe is all we need.
Reeling from a childhood trauma that has left him nearly deaf, Baby (Ansel Elgort) – for that is the moniker he gives people – works as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) the manager of a robbery syndicate in which he hires three crooks to pull the job and then puts them in the getaway car to be driven by Baby. Behind the wheel, this young fellow is something to behold. Using a carefully chosen song as a timer for the robbery, he can smoke through traffic like a dream, turning and drifted and dodging police cars and spike strips in a manner that would leave that Fast and Furious gang coughing up dust. He’s very very good at his job. He’s so good in fact, that the other crooks underestimated him. Presently the trio, which includes a hot-headed loose cannon named Bats (Jamie Foxx), a seasoned veteran named Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his babalicious wife Darling (Elia González), doesn’t trust the kid. They take his youth, not to mention his silence, as suspicion that he might be a narc. Underestimating the kid’s skill is their undoing. You sense from this gang, particularly from Bats, that if they just trusted his skill and stopped trying to pad their own egos then everything might be just fine.
Maybe they should adopt his rhythm. As they jump into his getaway car, he brings up “Bellbottoms” by The John Spencer Blues Explosion and seems to compose his getaway in time to the music. Before the robbery he tells his cohorts to wait – “I gotta start the song over.” The action works in unison to the music – and then there’s the further step that the ambient noise of everything from squealing tires to police sirens become part of the composition. Returning to the hideout, the song doesn’t end. Everything in the frame becomes part of the music from the stacks of money being counted to the chatter of conversation. It’s all in their air, and Wright doesn’t waste any of it.
The story is not nearly as compelling as the atmosphere that drives it, but we still care about what happens. Baby is in debt to Doc and is presently pulling his last job before he is let off the hook. Looking ahead at his prospects, he comes across a pretty waitress named Deborah (Lily James from the live-action Cinderella) who seems so uncomplicated that she could almost be transparent. His entire association with her never-the-less gives weight to the film’s later scenes when the plan goes belly up thanks, in large part, to Bats’ hair-trigger suspicions. This is a story that builds and builds, telling us the major plot points as they unfold rather than making it all clear at the beginning and then drawing a through-line to the next action scene. Of this, I will say no more.
Edgar Wright, in his other films from Scott Pilgrim to The World’s End is becoming the master of the extra layer. It’s one thing to put people in a scene and move them around but it’s quite another them an extra dimension. It’s one thing to introduce a weapons-dealer but another to have him lay out a monologue about his inventory as if he’s selling pork products. Every character here is someone we remember from the burly short-order cook to the kindly postal worker whose face we remember later in a key moment of danger. The actors in the supporting roles seem to have been hired for their faces. We remember them and that is key.
This movie is like a breath of fresh air. It is, at last, an action movie in which the director is directing the action and not hoping that a lot of whiz-bang forward-motion will be enough. Great action scenes keep the action in the center of the frame and use the editing, not as punctuation, but as the notes in the visual composition. That’s what is special here. Wright and his editors are really putting together a feast for the eyes and the ears. Our brains have to connect with each and every piece of the visual narrative so that we can follow along with the flow. Too much quick editing without thought or orchestration becomes convoluted and we give up – we become passive and are excised from the moment instead of becoming part of it.
Think of the greatest action movies from Die Hard to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lethal Weapon to Bullitt the more recent Kingsman. With its action scenes Baby Driver rises to that league in a movie that is put together brilliantly and with loving care – somebody wanted to make this movie.