The plot of Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s love letter to the heist movie, couldn’t be simpler; Boy has skills behind the wheel. Boy owes debt to a nefarious gangster. Boy turns getaway driver to work off the debt and earn his freedom back, until something inevitably goes wrong. How a writer and director build a thrilling adventure around this basic premise is what separates a good heist movie from the great heist movies.
What Wright has done is throw in a gal, some guns and a groovy soundtrack to that simple formula, and then stacked his film with a ridiculously cool cast. It’s his most straightforward story to date but unquestionably his most ambitious project. Ansel Elgort is the titular Baby, a streetwise kid working off what’s owed to Kevin Spacey’s mob boss, Doc. Doc plans the robberies and enlists different crews to pull them off and Baby is his lucky charm. Things start to go awry for Baby when he falls for Debora, a waitress who dreams of hitting the road one day and never looking back.
So what sets the movie apart from any other action movie? Well, Baby has a curious quirk; due to a childhood incident he is afflicted with tinnitus, and to drown out the constant whine in his ears he plays music, all the time. Baby’s soundtrack to life is similarly ours. The entire film is choreographed around the different beats and the stellar sounds set the tempo for everything from his daily trip to the coffee shop to daring stunts behind the wheel.
Wright has always been a visual storyteller so to say that this film opts for style over substance is essentially true but at the same time it’s a little disingenuous. The whole point of Baby Driver is that style is the substance. Baby has insulated himself from the world with his melodies and he chooses to only interact or react with his environment when he sets the tone by setting the tune. It’s a daring move that pays off in spades in the earlier part of the film but a tonal shift in the third act is jarring and completely at odds with the off-kilter, quirky timbre that embodies most of the movie.
Sadly, it’s not the only flaw. For a film centred on a getaway driver it’s curiously light on car chases, resorting to more standard action fare in the latter stages. Ansel Engelfort, for all his affable charm and laconic cool, doesn’t quite convince when the story calls for him to take up arms and Lily James’ waitress Debora, is largely wasted, resigned to looking doe-eyed and wistful at her beau. The rest of the cast, Doc’s crew, fair better with Jon Hamm in particular benefitting from more screen-time and less scruples as the plot progresses.
Flawed as it is though, Baby Driver is a technically astounding achievement, meticulously crafted and designed to make the most out if its idiosyncratic kinks and killer tracks. Edgar Wright’s ode to fast cars and capers is daring, audacious and frenetic fun, right up until the point where the wheels most violently fall off. Yes, it loses it’s momentum but that first hour and change is a complete rock and rollercoaster of a trip.