May 2023

Baby Driver (2017)

DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright

CAST: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal


After all the higher-profile, more anticipated movies that have all, to greater or lesser degrees, felt underwhelming and failed to meet their hype (for my $.02, at least), it’s a simple, straightforward action flick that completely succeeds at what it sets out to do.  While their two plots don’t have much in common besides featuring some street chases, Baby Driver might appeal to those who enjoy the likes of Premium Rush; it’s nothing deep or complicated, but it provides a couple hours of breezy, fast-paced escapism and is an eminently engaging and satisfying entry for those seeking some straight-up action with dashes of humor and romance (and a busy soundtrack) thrown into the mix.

Our title character is “Baby” (Ansel Elgort), the young prodigy getaway driver for crews under crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), including the likes of Buddy (Jon Hamm), his lover Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal).  Suffering from a constant ringing in his ears as the result of the childhood car crash that killed his parents, Baby uses his ever-present earbuds and an inexhaustible supply of music to both drown out the background noise and pump up his unmatched getaway driving skills.  Baby has been the designated driver for many jobs for Doc due to a long-ago mistake that put him in the gangster’s debt, but he’s about to pay off the last that he owes, putting him in the free and clear and looking forward to pursuing a normal life with Deborah (Lily James), the pretty waitress he strikes up a budding connection with.  But predictably, this “one last job” goes south when the crew is joined by loose cannon Bats (Jamie Foxx), and the ensuing shootout results in Baby on the run from both the cops and some of his former crewmates.

Action flicks, and ones heavily featuring car chases, are a dime a dozen.  What makes Baby Driver the whole package is that it takes time out of the whiz-bang action for enough character development and romance to make Baby and Deborah worth rooting for and give us an investment in them making it out alive without tipping the scales so heavily that it bogs down the pace.  The characters aren’t tremendously complex, but we’re given enough to show that Baby is basically a good kid stuck in a bad situation, and by her mutual love for music, we immediately know Deborah is the girl for him.  There’s plenty of quirky humor (Kevin Spacey gets some dry one-liners, while Jamie Foxx gets some of the more profane variety), but not so much that it feels jarring when we also get a street shootout with machine guns that bears a passing resemblance to the one in Heat.  The car chases stay within the realm of physics without going to the ridiculously over-the-top extremes of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and just as it does for Baby, the near-continuous soundtrack (courtesy of Baby’s ever-present earbuds) undeniably pumps more life into the action (never underestimate the influence of music in a movie).  The music isn’t just obligatory background noise; Wright uses it to witty effect (the climactic chase is partially set to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run To, Baby”), and also in conversation between Baby and Deborah (where they compete over how many songs have their names).  Queen’s “Brighton Rock” is featured early on, and then reprised later in an ironic context.

Movies like these might not be thought of as “actors’ movies”, but the cast is solid and not made up of overly typecast faces (maybe apart from Kevin Spacey, who could probably play his dry-witted mob boss in his sleep).  Ansel Elgort (best-known for twice co-starring with Shailene Woodley, first as her brother in Divergent, then as her love interest in The Fault In Our Stars) brings enough flair and panache to Baby to make him an engaging protagonist whom we root to somehow make it out in one piece, and is well-matched by Lily James; Baby and Deborah make an appealing couple, and their chemistry is strong enough to invest us in their relationship, which adds to the tension in the climax when Deborah (unsurprisingly) is put in harm’s way.  Kevin Spacey is delightfully droll, Jon Hamm (looking considerably more grizzled than Mad Men‘s debonair Don Draper) shows he can play a hard-ass, and Jamie Foxx shows he’s capable of showing a darker side as the volatile, trigger-happy Bats; he has moments where he gets laughs, but they’re uneasy ones.  Eiza Gonzalez is Buddy’s sexy, slightly unhinged partner-in-crime (and love), and in a smaller role Jon Bernthal is his usual thuggish self.

Baby Driver isn’t anything hugely deep or complicated.  The heists are simple and straightforward, and it’s plot twists we can see coming a mile away when the “one last job” goes off the deep end and Deborah ends up being threatened by a villain in the climax.  But at the same time, it serves up enough twists and turns to not fall into the trap of boring predictability, and the character who ends up being the final “villain” for Baby to face in the climax isn’t who we might have expected.  It flies under the radar of the Oscar wannabes and more “serious” dramas, but comes in like a breath of fresh air with its freshness and energy.  It serves up fast-paced action but without skimping on character development, and serves up an even balance of humor and seriousness.  In a movie landscape which recently has felt saturated with an endless parade of underwhelming titles, Baby Driver is satisfying.

* * * 1/2