Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Director Report Card: Edgar Wright (2017)

6. Baby Driver

Adversity can, sometimes, be a boon for creativity. Edgar Wright had worked on an adaptation of the superhero “Ant-Man” for over a decade, just to walk away from the film at the last minute due to creative disagreements with Marvel Studios. Out of this disappointment rose an opportunity. Wright has described “Baby Driver” as a dream film, that he's been kicking around for a very long time. If he had ended up directing “Ant-Man,” he probably wouldn't have gotten to make this film. Who knows how these things balance out but, considering “Baby Driver” has already become Wright's highest grossing film, it seems to have been a fair trade.

The same car accident that orphaned Baby as a child also gave him tinnitus. In order to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, Baby is always listening to music. As a little kid, Baby attempted to jack the car of Doc, a mysterious local crime boss. Seeing the kid's obvious talent, Doc has employed Baby as a getaway driver. And he's really good at that. After presumably paying off his debt to Doc, Baby begins to plan for the future, which includes a romance with pretty dinner waitress, Debora. However, Doc makes sure Baby keeps working for him. After a standard heist goes wrong, thanks to a psychotic enforcer named Bats, Baby finds himself in a world of trouble.

All of Edgar Wright's previous films have been comedies. They've had action and serious moments but generating laughs have always been their primary goal. “Baby Driver” is funny too, full of humorous dialogue and colorful characters. However, it might be Wright's first film that isn't most concerned with humor. The film, instead, draws upon the swagger and style of seventies mob flicks like “The Italian Job” or “The French Connection.” Like those films, “Baby Driver” is also built around a series of elaborate car chases. Yet the movie's focus on songs also makes it a musical of sorts. Car chases and shoot-outs, instead of dance numbers, are built around the music. Combining these divergent influence makes “Baby Driver” an unusual creation: Maybe the first carsploitation/crime/musical in cinematic history.

“Baby Driver” is pretty different from Wright's other films in some way. In other ways, the director's interests remain as consistent as ever. The Cornetto Trilogy and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” featured arrested man-children growing up. Baby is younger than Shaun, Scott, or Danny Butterman. However, he still has a lot of maturing to do. The scars of his childhood still hang over his head, influencing his decisions. He is running from this pain, bringing extra-meaning to the film's multiple car chases. By the end, he's confronted this head-on, emerging as a stronger, wiser adult. Just in case you missed this, “Baby Driver” also peppers itself with other symbols about growing up. Such as a significant tape, Baby's tinnitus, and even his juvenile-sounding name.

Baby is the latest in a line of cinematic getaway drivers that are characterized by their silence. I've already seen some people assume Baby's monosyllabic nature is a reference to Nicholas Winding Refn's “Drive.” The truth is both movies were inspired by Walter Hill'sThe Driver.” In some ways, “Baby Driver” is almost a deconstruction of the silent driver character type. While Hill's and Refn's drivers were mysterious characters, who silence remained unexplored, we learn quite a bit about Baby's inner life. His silence is literally a symptom of the pain that still haunts him. Ansel Elgort matches his fittingly baby-faced appearance with a youthful energy and a tough, resourceful exterior.

Just like its speedy protagonist, “Baby Driver” moves quickly. Edgar Wright's sense of motion is present and accounted for. There are multiple shots of Baby walking from location to location, powered by his own soundtrack. Sometimes, it's while walking over to get the traditional post-heist coffees. More often, it's when he's celebrating in his apartment with his foster father. Wright's trademark scene transitions put in appearance, spinning clothes at a laundromat shifting to a spinning record. Or a swooping vehicle moving the scene along. “Baby Driver's” propulsive soundtrack keeps its energy up throughout, making the movie alive with movement.

The movie's blending of snappy soundtrack choices and breakneck action meets in a spellbinding foot chase. The scene is scored to the driving proto-metal of Focus' “Hocus Pocus.” Wright shoots long stretches of the chase in a continuous take, further lending a sense of movement to the scene. Baby leaps over chairs, runs through a parking garbage, barrels through a mall, slides down an escalator, and eventually hides behind vehicles are as shoot-out begins. Wright's ability to perfectly sync his action with his music is especially on display here. The yodeling, scatting, or polka intervals between the rock guitars is when Baby pauses to catch his breath. Bullets tear through characters in tune with the song. Just before Focus wraps up their song, Baby's iPod is destroyed. Perfect.

Of course, most of the film's chases aren't on foot. “Baby Driver” is a car chase movie, building itself around a series of increasingly elaborate vehicular pursuits. The first such sequence has Baby driving a red muscle car, spinning dangerously around corners, tires squealing on the asphalt. The scene ends brilliantly, Baby outsmarting the cops. Another big chase has our hero in a sturdier vehicle, crashing through guard rails and driving down slopping hills. When a pursuer won't leave them alone, the scene escalates towards some very clever vehicle-on-vehicle combat. The big finale takes place in the tight confines of a parking garage. An especially impressive stunt has Baby and his pursuer driving backwards, up the spiral paths of the garage.

“Baby Driver” has a loaded supporting cast. Kevin Spacey is hilarious as Doc. Spacey really has a way with Wright's motormouth dialogue. The character takes some surprising turns, which Spacey makes believable. The actors playing the film's villains are especially memorable. Jaime Foxx is appropriately frightening as Bats. Bats is a totally unpredictable psychopath, who always seems to be seconds away from killing someone. Foxx brings an interior logic to the character. Bats' actions may seem unreasonable and insane to everyone else but it makes sense to him. Jon Hamm sheds his usually classy appearance to play a hardened criminal with perpetual five o'clock shadow. Hamm's character seems amicable at first, even joking around with Baby. As the story progresses, he becomes more dangerous, a transformation Hamm makes believable. One of my favorite additions to the cast I won't describe, other than to say it's a cameo from a seventies singer/songwriter and star of a cult classic I know Wright loves.

Love stories have been components in Edgar Wright's films in the past. Romance moves the stories in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” forward. (And “Hot Fuzz” too, depending on how you look at it.) Despite that, the love stories tend to be a weaker aspect of those films. That precedence, disappointingly, continues in “Baby Driver.” Lily James plays Debora, the girl that captures Baby's heart. James is charming and looks adorable in her retro-style waitress uniform. She has solid chemistry with Elgort. However, the two only have a few scenes together, making the dedication they show to one another a little difficult to believe. Furthermore, Debora doesn't really exist outside the context of her romance with Baby. Everything we learn about her is due to her boyfriend. Which isn't a big deal but is a little disappointing.

If a love story that is a little thinly developed is “Baby Driver's” greatest flaw, another problem the film has is a slightly weak ending. The climax ramps up towards bigger and bigger action, tugging the audience along with crazy theatrics, getting your adrenaline up. After a heart-pumping climax like that, “Baby Driver” adds an overly long resolution. Every thread of the plot is concluded a little too neatly. Stuff that perhaps would've been better left unsaid is resolved. Baby's arc rounds out with him reaching maximum maturity. The film rewards him for this a little too gratuitously. It takes the film out on a slightly sour note.

“Baby Driver's” soundtrack is massive, the release version stretching on for thirty tracks. There's so many great songs in the movie that it's hard to pick just a few. The riotous rock n' roll of Jon Spencer Blues Explosions' “Bellbottoms” begins the film, establishing its particular energy from the get-go. Bob & Earl's “Harlem Shuffle” adds a fantastic sense of fun, further establishing Baby's personality. The chaotic punk rock of “Neat, Neat, Neat” by the Damned propels another car chase, the song's gritty aesthetic add an extra edge to the scene. Queen's “Brighton Rock” is used spectacularly in the final act, a move certain to bring that song to a new generation of listeners. There's many more but those are some highlights.

I really liked “Baby Driver.” Where it falls in Edgar Wright's overall career is hard to say. My appreciation for Wright's films tend to rise with multiple rewatches, as you catch the foreshadowing and little in-jokes he sneaks in. Still, my initial opinion on “Baby Driver” is very positive. The action scenes are amazing. The use of music is fantastic. The cast and characters are really memorable. Wright's sense of style and movement are stronger than ever. That the film is already shaping up to be a sleeper hit is refreshing, considering Wright's films have never quite connected with mainstream audiences before. I'm sure “Baby Driver” is a motion picture film fans will be talking about all throughout this year and probably beyond that too. [Grade: A-]

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