Once again, it’s a summer of inevitabilities in Hollywood. Superheroes are perched at the top of the box office. A flare in Minions merchandise signals a new Despicable Me entry. There’s a new Transformers, and yes – it’s very bad and extremely long. Studios will try to restart properties nobody cares about anymore, like The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean, and then they’ll wonder why they can’t succeed.
Even Wonder Woman, loudly celebrated for its ability to break new ground with its female lead, devolves into typical blockbuster slush towards the end. And then there’s the most obvious inevitability, which I’m demonstrating right now: critics complaining about an industry that has abandoned taking risks on original concepts, especially when it comes to big, mainstream entertainment. Enter Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a movie so intensely old-fashioned in its craft yet cutting-edge in its energy and wit, that it serves as a powerful adrenaline shot for a sequel-fatigued theatergoing public.
Edgar Wright has long been known as one of the finest and most vivacious writer-directors working today, even if his cult hits Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World have never had the kind of box office heft to give studio executives much trust that he could draw the attention of anything wider than a niche, hipster audience. Baby Driver handily puts those doubts to rest, with a lovably despicable cast of characters and gloriously old-school action.
This is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the world, a music-infused heist film merges the beating heart and tapping toes of La La Land with the white-knuckle car chases of a James Bond film and the aggressive, self-reflexive humor of Tarantino. At its center is the fantastic Ansel Elgort as Baby, a quiet yet goodhearted getaway driver with a constant ringing in his ears to go along with the violent, psychotic musings of the scumbag criminals he’s forced to work (portrayed by such charismatic faces as Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm).
Baby’s skills as a driver, his ability to get down and dirty without ever betraying his central values or sacrificing that which matters most to him (which includes his many iPods and his girlfriend Debora, played by the immensely charming Lily James of Cinderella fame) makes him an instantly iconic protagonist, and also reflects Edgar Wright’s own convictions as the director of intensely idiosyncratic entertainment. Anyone who followed his troubled and ultimately unsustainable collaboration with Marvel on what was supposed to be his Ant-Man will know that, like Baby, Edgar Wright can play the game as well as anyone but will not surrender his own principles and standards.
Baby Driver is a fun film, but it’s fun in Wright’s own special way. Manic, dynamic editing, obscure pop culture references and that particularly British style of fast-paced dark comedy are given the Bullitt treatment with old-school car chases and wacky stunts shot with minimal CGI (and it shows). It’s all set to a constant pulse-pounding soundtrack that’s perfectly synched with the action. This not only offers a portal into Baby’s enigmatic conscience, it lets the audience know it’s okay to have fun, to not take it too seriously. Paradoxically, this makes the pivotal moments of suspense and emotion feel even more pronounced, because Wright lulls viewers into a false sense of silliness.
The simplistic nature of the “just when I thought I was out…” narrative is perhaps best-suited to Wright’s already-dizzying style. Whereas Scott Pilgrim was radical in both form and content (and bombed at the box office as a result), Baby Driver employs a more traditional construction to avoid alienating viewers who might otherwise find his work disorienting. Even though there are segments that drag significantly and it occasionally falls victim to infuriating tropes such as ‘the villain who just won’t die’, the end product is an accomplished mixture of what Wright always does best, and what studio blockbusters can do best when they’re fully committed to original, audacious ideas.
Significant credit should go to Sony for taking such a bold risk. After disastrous attempts to build a rebooted Spider-Man universe around Andrew Garfield and to restart the dormant Ghostbusters franchise, it’s heartening to see them investing in genuinely exciting adult blockbusters, including an action-musical-comedy-heist film. Even more gutsy, Sony invested in Edgar Wright, a director who’s never made profitable films and who’d just had a messy break-up with Disney over his unwillingness to compromise with the studio’s mandates. But he has made good films, and it’s a wonderful thing that this still means something to Hollywood, especially during a summer of such inevitability.
Score: 4 out of 5