Edgar Wright’s first film in four years is rollicking stunt car extravaganza.
In this business the moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.
What makes a great action film effective? I don’t just mean from a filmmaking standpoint, i.e. the staging, or the choreography, or the editing, but the response it elicits in the human brain.
While neurologists haven’t yet nailed down the specifics, it’s generally agreed that the reward centers in our brains are stimulated by, among other things, coordinated movement. It’s why so many enjoy dancing, both to watch and to perform. Set choreography to music, which scientists already know our brain loves for both melody and rhythm, and it’s a double whammy. It’s no wonder that a film’s musical accompaniment can elevate a scene of dudes swinging laser swords at each other into art even when the rest of the movie sucks.
The third element is that lizard part of our amygdala that activates under threat, forcing us into “fight or flight.” A chase scene, especially when we’re emotionally invested in the pursued, taps into something primal. Directors have exploited this since the beginning of film: The Great Train Robbery, one of the very first, culminates in a chase on horseback. Flash-forward to our contemporary age, to Mad Max: Fury Road, the neuron-quick editing of the Bourne franchise, or the T-Rex stomping after the Jeep in Jurassic Park (which brings the long-buried nightmares of prehistoric man to vibrant life), and the ability to execute a good chase is an essential piece of any action filmmaker’s toolkit.
Which brings me to Edgar Wright and Baby Driver, which combines all three — choreography, music, and adrenaline — into a shot of pure endorphins delivered directly to the nervous system. Wright, one of my favorite directors alive, developed this film for two decades; it’s the first screenplay he’s written without Simon Pegg or any of his usual collaborators. It began in his mind not with characters or plot, but with a song: the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”. He attached images to it, and actions to its pulsing rhythm, and Baby Driver was born. Next came its protagonist, a gifted getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) whose tinnitus requires a constant stream of music in order for him to concentrate.
After Wright’s public divorce from Marvel’s Ant-Man, the runway was clear for his dream project — and the result could have been little more than a series of music videos disguised as a heist film. It doesn’t match the emotional depth of the Cornetto Trilogy or the unfettered creativity of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But I don’t want to sell it short, either: what Wright pulls off with Baby Driver, in its ambition and execution, is beyond the limits of most directors. Wright doesn’t cut any corners on the stunts or rely on incoherent editing to manufacture his thrills. He shows his work. There’s no CGI. Those Atlanta highways are real. You feel the exhilaration he felt making it, and it’s organic and undiluted.
So Elgort plays B-A-B-Y Baby, in the car as a child when his parents were killed, still living with his deaf foster father (CJ Jones, in many ways the film’s secret weapon and moral center). He keeps his iPod Classic on at all times, as well as an old tape recorder he uses to turn candid conversations into electronic beats. He’s about to pay off his debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a cooly professional kingpin whose “goods” Baby had stolen some time before. His job is to answer the phone when it rings and drive Doc’s latest crew of robbers to and from the scene — various sociopaths played by Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, and an especially unhinged Jamie Foxx. Baby doesn’t think too much about the ethics of what he’s doing; he just listens to his music to drown out the “hum in the drum,” biding his time until he can disappear west with his new waitress girlfriend, Debora (Lily James).
The collision of the “one last job” and “just met a cute girl” tropes is natural for a film conceived by a man in his 20s. As our own Tyler Remmert quipped to me after the screening, “Every beat of the screenplay could have been a student film.” I thought of Luc Besson being handed millions of dollars and a cast of stars for The Fifth Element, which, while visually engrossing, reads like it was written by a sixteen-year-old, because it was.
To be clear, Baby Driver isn’t written like a comedy, either. The funniest gags are predominately visual, like song lyrics appearing as graffiti or Wright’s trademark match cuts. But while the script isn’t Baby Driver’s strongest element, nor does it hold the film back. Wright gives us just enough about these characters to make us care, provides a couple of clever twists, and — most importantly — hires the most charismatic actor available for every role. Elgort shows why he was in the running to play Young Han Solo. Hamm and Foxx are having a blast. I’m also not sure anyone will ever again write a role this perfectly suited for Kevin Spacey, whose rat-a-tat delivery of Dashiell Hammett-inspired dialogue is the perfect complement to both Elgort’s taciturn youngster and Wright’s syncopated editing.
The genre-mashing Wright has the instincts of an orchestra conductor, guiding the film from accelerando to ritardando and back again, skillfully pacing out his action sequences with variety and flair. His musical choices are eclectic and inspired; a foot chase set to Focus’s “Hocus Pocus” left me giddy, and there are others too good to spoil. Wright revealed in the post-film Q & A streamed by Alamo Drafthouse that he’s been terrified for years another director would scoop his deep cuts out from under him. He was especially worried about James Gunn on the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and the pair shared a direct message chain on Twitter where they treated musical artists like cards in a high-stakes game of Go Fish. The music is as much a character in Baby Driver as it’s possible for a non-musical to be: every swerve, door slam, and gun shot becomes part of the chorus. The film sings, even if the characters don’t. (Much, anyway. There’s a little bit of singing.)
Baby Driver is the apex of Wright’s technical proficiency, earning him a place alongside cinema’s great pop stylists. But its ending, to which I’ll only allude, shows his maturity. Every choice Baby makes matters. It’s easy to glory in speed and violence when you’re young; that’s the main reason people love action movies anyway. It’s a better trick to make it mean something, and Wright comes remarkably close to achieving the impossible.