A movie like Baby Driver reminds me why I never cared for the Fast and the Furious series. I mean, it’s all well and good to have cars jumping out of skyscrapers and being chased by submarines. We can laugh that stuff off, knowing that it’s all green screen, but when is anything ever really at stake? You know it’s all going to end with Vin Diesel safe at home, cracking that smile and muttering some more stuff about family.
Edgar Wright’s delightful film, on the other hand, opens with a red Subaru driving away from a bank robbery and pulling sick moves, doing a 180 spin in an alley to avoid a garbage truck backing out, knocking tire-damage spikes into the path of pursuing police vehicles, and pulling a U-turn on the freeway to hide in plain sight between two similar-looking red cars, forcing a surveillance helicopter to play three-car monte. The precision driving looks real because it’s been done for real, and it’s all the more thrilling for making you think that you could do it if you practiced.
Driving the car is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a youthful-looking savant behind the wheel who bears a nickname given him by an Atlanta crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey), whom he works for to pay off a debt. Baby is constantly listening to music through his earbuds to drown out the tinnitus in his ears from the childhood car accident that killed his parents. Though Doc promises Baby that one last job will make them even, he’s lying, and Baby finds a reason to get out when he meets a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James), with whom he bonds over their rough upbringings and shared love of music.
If you know Wright’s English movies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, you’ll be familiar with the repeated lines of dialogue and rhyming shots that he uses to give the movie structure as well as create neat jokes and gags. However, here he’s somehow found another gear. During one heist, Baby pulls the car forward a few feet while he’s waiting for his cohorts so we can’t see the robbery going wrong outside the frame. Baby’s love for music does more than provide an excuse for the soundtrack to have lots of songs with the word “baby” in the title. It sets the rhythm for many of the action sequences, including a crackling footchase as Baby flees through a park and a shopping mall from both the cops and his fellow robbers. The opening credit sequence features Baby turning his walk to the local coffee shop into a full-fledged solo dance number set to Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” accompanied by a tracking shot that’s so delirious it could have come straight out of La La Land.
For such a tall actor, Elgort is awfully light on his feet, and he’s never been more charming than in this film, whether he’s executing balletic dance moves or losing himself lip-syncing to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” in the car while his colleagues are robbing a bank. He and a refreshingly unposh James have enough chemistry to blow out the theater marquee, and they’re surrounded by terrific supporting actors who are given colorful, meaty speeches to deliver, as when one gangsta (Jamie Foxx) pegs a fellow robber (Jon Hamm) as a fallen Wall Street guy who’s robbing to support his cocaine habit: “You’re a bigger motherfuckin’ crook than I’ll ever be.” The attention given to the thriller elements and the music means there isn’t as much comedy here as in Wright’s other movies, but there’s still stuff like an Asian gangsta (Lanny Joon) with a misspelled tattoo and a mix-up when the criminals wear Michael Myers masks for a job.
I do wish this thing had had the overwhelming romantic impact of Nicolas Winding Refn’s similar Drive, but Wright is a filmmaker with the chops to rival Refn and many other more serious directors, and he shows them off here without wearing out his welcome like he did in his previous North American film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The astonishing fluidity with which he puts together the music, editing, and performances gives Baby Driver the sensation of riding in a high-performance car with just the right song coming over the speakers. The world seems to fall into place.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, and Kevin Spacey. Written and directed by Edgar Wright. Rated R.