Slick and superlatively choreographed, with a super-charged look and feel, Baby Driver is a pedal-to-the-metal action thriller that rarely lets up, in the vein of The Driver, Point Break, and Heat. Frenzied, frenetic, and as fast-paced as a Ferrari in the red, it’s both a blast and a mess, with a strong opening and a second half that whimpers (or flames out?) before it crosses the finish line.
Baby (Ansel Elgort in a memorable quasi-debut following The Fault in Our Stars) is a genius getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus due to a childhood car accident and works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mastermind heist criminal. Baby is one job away from repaying his debt to Doc for a job gone wrong. Baby’s life changes forever when he meets the sweet-faced Debora (Lily James in a more memorable, scene-stealing quasi-debut following television projects Downton Abbey and War & Peace) at a diner he frequents.
Debora is disappointed that so few songs mention her name (T.Rex’s “Debora” being the standout), while “every song is about you”. Helpfully, the two share a desire to escape, “to head west on the 20, in a car we can’t afford, with a plan we don’t have.” Unhelpfully, Doc, who doesn’t generally work with the same crew twice, also doesn’t want to let Baby, his “lucky charm”, out of his sight.
With only six features to his name, it’s safe to assume that anything from writer-director Edgar Wright will be at least two things – entertaining and stylistically impressive – and Baby Driver is no exception. The opening chase sequence is a borderline masterful example of the use of editing to kickstart a film. Wright lacks no cinematic confidence, and the verve he displays in the opening minutes, as Baby, Buddy (Jon Hamm, The Town), Griff (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street) and Darling (Eiza González) set out to rob a bank, is positively thrilling.
Forty minutes later, after ushering in the meet-cute, endearing romance between Baby and Debora and flaunting a killer soundtrack (Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, Ennio Morricone, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), Wright appears poised to make a film equal to the fantastic first two installments of his Cornetto trilogy, even though Baby Driver has as much in common with the Wachowskis’ hectic Speed Racer as Nicolas Winding Refn’s brooding Drive.
But around the halfway point, Baby Driver begins moving so fast that it careens off the tracks, as a driver loses control of the wheel. A surprising, violent death marks the unfortunate turning point. Suddenly, Baby and Buddy make more dramatic decisions yet become less compelling characters, as the nuance all but disappears. In Baby’s case, the changes are illogical and irreconcilable with what we understand about him until that point; in Buddy’s case, he is transformed into a nutty cardboard villain with one-dimensional revenge motives.
(Side note: I’ve made my peace that the brilliant Jon Hamm will never receive another role like Don Draper – to replicate the scope of a seven-season television series focused on him in the context of a two-hour running time is a tall order – but can’t casting agents find something more worthy of his talents?)
The action scenes, including a wild shoot-out, become drab and uninspired. The stakes remain life-and-death yet are drained of significance. The ending is ludicrously rushed, cramming several years of court cases and prison time into a montage that jumps around and culminates in a tidy-bow shot that fails to satisfy.
In the end, Baby Driver fails to congeal, or to be integrated into a complete whole. All of Wright’s work can be criticized as “style over substance”, stories that sacrifice weighty themes for wit, but his best – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz – are beautifully cohesive while being referential and ironic and visually dazzling. These high watermarks are the product of a directorial vision in which speed limits are broken but the steering never slips; the car never skids into a guardrail and off a cliff.
Baby Driver, like The World’s End, is instead glib and overloaded in its final stages, and strikes one as almost mishandled. Part of the problem may lie in the casting: Spacey, Bernthal, and Jamie Foxx could probably play Doc, Griff, and Bats in their sleep, and indeed they sometimes appear to be phoning in. And somehow none of the repartee generates the same chemistry as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, or seems as simultaneously fitting and exciting as the power quintet of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aubrey Plaza, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, and Alison Pill in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Ultimately, Baby Driver is recommended for its first hour, but it could have been so much more. If anything, it proves that Wright films, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino films, are a more intricate balance than they initially let on: if they tip too far towards precious or on-the-nose or overlong or too-clever-for-their-own good, they fall apart. I challenge Wright to wrangle his creative impulses a bit on the next go-around. He has passion and imagination to burn; if he marries it with discipline, he just may become one of the greats.