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Baby Driver

B-A-B-Y-DRI-VER!  Edgar Wright's sixth film has arrived in the summer of 2017 with all the insistence and irresistibility of a great pop song.  Already in his splashy career the Englishman has written better tunes than this. And yet Baby Driver pulses with more precision and originality of expression than most of his contemporaries can approach at their best.   Resist if you dare.  As summer fare goes, fast, furious and not lobotomized is hard to pass up.

Wright has apparently had the notion for Baby Driver bouncing around in that energetic mind of his since the 1990s.  You can see a version of the film's first scene in a music video for Mint Royale's "Blue Song" Wright directed in 2003.  The super kinetic action is certainly a perfect fit for the writer/director's crisp editing, wit and inimitable unison of sound and action.

Baby Driver both charges from the start line and yet saves it feeling for character and emotion for a bit later.  Here one of the way that Wright distinguishes himself from contemporaries and imitators; there is invariably a ghost in the high-octane machine. 

 
Our young driver (Ansel Eglort), actually named Baby, seems both a mix of the wheelman ciphers from The Driver (a film whose influence transcends its actual quality; though there's no indication that it was an explicit influence on Edgar Wright in this case) and Drive, crossed with the adolescent bluff and sunglasses of Tom Cruise in Risky Business.

When the trio of bank robbers (who make little attempt to hid their bad intentions with their edgy wardrobe choices; as if there's a shop tucked away in an Atlanta mall called Contempo Hood) are ready to exit their red Subaru WRX getaway car, Baby starts Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bell Bottoms" and the game is on.  While the heist is taking place, Elgort car dances, drums, lip syncs and even has the windshield wipers working in rhythm.  


Of course, our Baby is cool under pressure and is ridiculously good behind the wheel.  These but the first a series of heist and getaway conventions that Edgar Wright trundles into frame, tricks out and sends speeding in unexpected directions.  

We find out in time that Baby's penchant for a constant soundtrack to which he grooves and drives is partially a cover for tinnitus that has afflicted him since a childhood auto accident that made him an orphan.  Even after the first successful getaway, we see Baby on a coffee run through the streets of downtown Atlanta, treating the city, it's buildings and traffic as if they are props in his own music video.  Fluidly though me may seem to glide through the world, Baby is also a menace on the sidewalks, drawing complaints and chagrined expressions from pedestrians and drivers alike for all the collisions and near-collisions that he causes.  It's a charming bit of counterpart to his savant-like progress through the city as a driver.  He might be dangerous behind the wheel, but he's clearly a menace on foot.   


Wright plays fast and loose with another of the conventions of heist films, that of the criminal reluctantly (or not so reluctantly) agreeing to a last caper before he goes straight.  Such is the situation of Baby, an avid driver but unenthusiastic criminal, particularly when he sees the violence that is logically visited upon victims, bystanders and even cohorts.  Baby is responsible after one job for "sunsetting" a vehicle, driving it to a scrap yard and watching both car and fellow crew member crushed at once.

Baby find himself beholden to a criminal mastermind known as Doc, since the time he made the mistake of stealing Doc's car.  And yet Baby is, after all, Baby.  Hardly a middle-aged con trying to shuck a life of crime.  For that matter, the relationship with the exploitative Doc turns out to be more complicated, have more heart that it appears at first glance.  Playing Doc and given ample opportunity to skillfully chew through some scenery is Kevin Spacey.  

 

One convention of the heist film sadly not updated in Baby Driver is the confinement of women to roles as either the enticement for the anti-hero to walk (or drive) the straight and narrow, or some sort of femme fatale whose involvement is going to mean trouble later (Which invariably is true; no good can come of mixing your criminal and personal lives.  Take my word on this.).  In the former careworn role enter the very fresh-faced Lily James. 

 Despite name badges to the contrary, Ms. James plays a waitress named Debora whom Baby meets while having a solitary meal at the diner where she works.  Like most all of the action and relationships in Baby Driver, the charming pair's flirtation and courtship is impelled by the film's rich soundtrack. 

 When Baby first casts eyes on the winsome Debora, she's practically strutting her way into work, singing the chorus to Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y."  Somehow, the music maven Baby doesn't know this namesake song, but he quickly addresses that gap in his collection by repairing to a record store and buying the vinyl.  Later, Baby returns the favor by revealing to the waitress her own name song, T-Rex's "Debora."  This conversation begins in the diner and concludes with the young couple back to back in a laundromat as the T. Rex song plays, one ear bud to each.  Consider it a Lady and the Tramp moment for the 21st century.  


Ms. James might be confined to the role of sun of female luring the male lead from his criminal winter of discontent, but she does it very appealingly.  It says something about her range or perhaps the ultimate sweetness of Wright's script that James casts a far brighter light than she ever managed in multiple seasons of Downton Abbey as the vivacious Lady Rose.  

There is nominal female involvement in the criminal action of Baby Driver in the form of  Eliza Gonzalez as Darling.  Ms. Gonzalez gets a few lines and is allowed to spray around a few waves of ordnance, but mainly she's the arm candy to Buddy (fake names only for these jobs, please).  To enjoy a woman more front and center in the summer action, we'll pin our immediate hopes on Ms. Theron in the upcoming Atomic Blonde.


With Buddy, Jon Hamm adds another shade of darkness to his palette.  As another of his criminal cohorts, Bats (Jamie Foxx, very good here) pegs him, Buddy is probably a Wall Street type gone bad (or worse...or would that be better?), on the lam with a woman he met in some den of vice, committing these heists to support a white powder habit.  At Buddy's most desperate, Hamm makes him look quite the long-faced demon, eyes goggling slightly, trying to perceive the world through his own fog of malice, desperation and (ultimately) thirst for revenge.  

All of Wright's films, at least those of those widely distributed, have involved some sort of battle royale.  It's not a new development in Baby Driver, but the kick-ass climax is producing diminishing returns for the writer/director.  When the last job goes wrong, after others are dispatched, it comes down to a desperate battle between Baby and the one-note Buddy.  All of this prior to Baby Driver's somewhat storybook conclusion, told in jail-time separation montage for Baby and Debora.  



Fortunately, prior to the big finish and the seemingly happy ending, Edgar Wright keeps his film humming, running and dancing as few if any can match.  Baby Driver is stocked with a jukebox that would make a Jim Jarmusch soundtrack blush.  This, apparently, not just a matter of the musical sensibilities of the director, but the impressive work of Steven Price in selecting and uncannily syncing the music to the action of the film.  Thus, we have the pushing of ATM buttons, the clinking of glasses in a restaurant and much else - but not too much - occurring in perfect step with its soundtrack.  If only La La Land had danced like this film.  

Baby Driver pulses not only with an irresistible array of nuggets - Bob & Earl's "Harlem Shuffle," The Detroit Emeralds' "Baby Let Me Take You," Googie Rene's "Smokey Joe's La La" - and a dizzying breadth of genres and moods.  Hence, an instrumental interlude from one of Damon Albarn's typically off-kilter Blur compositions, "Chemical World," the mad and accelerating keyboard line perfectly setting (and enhancing) the mood of the action about to go, as the English say, pear-shaped.

  Earlier, another utterly inspired bit of keyboard appropriation, as Dave Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance" is heard while we see Baby playing air piano as a next heist is laid out by Doc.  The use of music, especially evocative pop songs, can be a cheap and insidious thing.  But it's hard to quarrel with music used this originally, not riding the back of some thundering emotion already in place within us, but managing to create something new out of the synthesis and send us off into new directions of appreciation. 


Baby Driver also distinguishes itself by keeping all the outlandish action as real as possible.  Such was the case a couple of years ago, with another refreshing summer blockbuster, George Miller's Mad Max:  Fury Road.  Miller used the term "in camera" to describe much of the stunt work on his film.  The implication is that the action is real, created before the camera, not with some post-production computer wizardly, not the type of clearly fake action that is shoveled (and sadly eagerly consumed) down the throats of movie goers the year round.  The driving is real in Baby Driver.  Thanks to a veteran crew Edgar Wright is eager to credit, the film's chase sequences are vastly more entertaining than the far-fetched nonsense that often speeds about the multiplex speedway. 

The little red cars speed.  Our Baby and Debora are a mighty appealing pair.  That great music plays and the body moves.  Liken the films of Edgar Wright to human beings and you find in the case of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz limber frames, real heart and actual intelligence, with something to say about the state of modern England.

With Baby Driver, the heart is a little more cheaply come by.  Our hero is an orphan after all (we call this pulling a Wes Anderson).  And there is Baby's mute foster father, a kindly African American man who seems present to provide some easy racial bonhomie.  And while the dialog occasionally crackles with wit, Baby Driver hardly approaches the heights of the two first two "Cornetto" films, or even the underappreciated Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  And yet, say all of that about this latest creation of mad Dr. Wright...say that the heart is lacking and the brain a little dim.  There's still no denying the body is electric.  Rock on.           


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