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Edgar Wright’s wildly entertaining Baby Driver is a lean, mean, genre-smashing machine

Come for the badass car chases, stay for the stealth movie musical.

Ansel Elgort as Baby, the titular driver of Baby Driver.
TriStar Pictures

In just four feature films, Edgar Wright has established himself as both a skilled genre craftsman and an ace collaborator. His loosely connected “Cornetto Trilogy” (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator and star Simon Pegg, gleefully played with the conventions of the zombie film, police procedural, and alien invasion movie, respectively. And his woefully underrated adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, co-written with Michael Bacall, is a purer distillation of the concept of a comic book movie than any boasting the words “Marvel” or “DC” in its credits.

That history is precisely what makes Wright’s new Baby Driver so intriguing: It’s the director once again reveling in a well-established genre — this time, the heist movie. But now he’s both director and sole writer, which makes Baby Driver the closest audiences can get to a pure, undiluted shot of Edgar Wright filmmaking (save for his very first film, 1995’s A Fistful of Fingers, which is commercially unavailable and all but impossible to track down). It’s also, notably, the movie he chose to make after parting ways with 2015’s Ant-Man, once it became apparent Marvel didn’t want to make “an Edgar Wright movie,” a chronology that suggests Baby Driver is the sort of “Edgar Wright movie” he wanted to make instead.

And boy, is it ever an Edgar Wright movie. Baby Driver finds Wright directly in his wheelhouse — reverently and knowingly deploying genre tropes with visual style and musical panache — and his enthusiasm is apparent in each and every frame. It’s a seemingly straightforward “one last job” crime tale mashed up with a jukebox musical romance, part high-octane action flick and part music video, propelled by perfectly calibrated performances and a wicked sense of humor.

But while Baby Driver is a quintessential Edgar Wright movie, it’s so many other things as well. Here are three other reasons to check out one of the summer’s best movies.

Baby Driver is a movie musical like none other

Wright is almost as passionate and knowledgeable about popular music as he is about filmmaking, and his movies always have at least one musical moment worth remembering. (Think Shaun of the Dead’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”–soundtracked zombie carnage.) In that sense, Baby Driver is a culmination of sorts for Wright: a jukebox musical that’s built around the very idea of musical moments.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) has acute tinnitus (a constant ringing in the ears) caused by a childhood accident, so he lives his life under earbuds attached to a rotating roster of iPods that provide a constant soundtrack to his daily activities — which happen to include driving the getaway car for a series of bold heists masterminded by Doc (Kevin Spacey). As established in an open-mouthed-grin-inducing opening sequence set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” Baby’s automotive escapades and his music consumption are a symbiotic relationship: Every gear shift and hairpin turn seems dictated by the music pulsing in his ears, to the point where he has to stop and re-sync the music if things get off tempo.

Doc switches up his crew for each heist, tapping local criminals whose ranks include slobbery lovers Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) and walking wild card Bats (Jamie Foxx). But Baby is his constant, in part because he’s just so damn good, and in part because Doc has Baby in his debt and under his control. As suggested by that relationship, Baby is a reluctant criminal who’s looking forward to the proverbial “one last job” that will free him from his obligation to Doc and let him go straight. But as these things usually go, freedom doesn’t come easy, or without collateral damage.

Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jaime Foxx fill out Baby Driver’s crack ensemble.
TriStar Pictures

Enter Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress with whom Baby bonds over, what else, music (cue “Deborah” by T. Rex, or as Baby mistakenly calls the group, “Trex”). Between his blossoming relationship with Debora and his role as caretaker for his deaf and infirm foster dad, Joseph (C.J. Jones), Baby’s never had more incentive to get out of the game — so of course, Doc comes calling with an offer Baby can’t refuse that teams him with Buddy and Darling, who appreciate Baby’s eccentric approach to driving, and the unpredictable Bats, who most decidedly doesn’t.

What makes Baby Driver a movie musical, rather than an action movie with a killer soundtrack, is how Wright incorporates the film’s music into not just the narrative but the action as well. Every action scene functions as a choreographed dance number, with gunshots and screeching wheels marking perfect time with the music, and Elgort turns in some winning lip-sync-and-dance moments that help establish Baby’s character beyond his signature quirk. But Baby Driver also follows many of the beats of the classic Hollywood musical — a form that Wright knows and loves — particularly in the courtship between Baby and Debora, which cannily uses music to narrative, thematic, and emotional ends.

Naturally, Baby can’t stay under headphones for the entirety of Baby Driver. The complexities of both the plot and the action simply won’t allow it without the device becoming contrived. But the work Wright and Elgort do in the first act establishes the film’s musical MO, which mashes up music video–style kineticism with the emotional and narrative drive of movie musicals. The result is singularly riveting.

Baby Driver is a star vehicle for its lead

Go, Baby, go!
TriStar Pictures

Speaking of Elgort: Hot damn is he great as Baby. Best known as the kid with the funny name who dies in The Fault in Our Stars, the cherubic-looking 23-year-old doesn’t naturally spring to mind as the marquee name for a crime/action movie or a musical. But in Baby Driver, he’s perfect. The kid’s a walking charisma bomb, and Wright takes full advantage of that fact at every turn, whether it’s in a grin-inducing long take that follows a celebratory Baby grooving down the street to “Harlem Shuffle,” or in a heart-pumping foot chase that highlights Elgort’s towering frame, obvious athleticism, and aw-shucks charm all at the same time.

Baby is naturally taciturn, but smart scripting, thoughtful musical choices, and Elgort’s natural magnetism keep the kid from being the sort of brooding bore he could easily become in less skilled hands. Elgort’s Baby is so compelling that other characters become more interesting simply from being in his orbit, particularly Debora. (For all his other talents, Wright has never been an especially dab hand when it comes to crafting compelling female characters, and while both Debora and Darling get their moments to shine, they’re still the flattest characters in the ensemble.)

Not that this cast really needs the assist; Baby Driver’s stacked ensemble knows how to maneuver within the film’s dueling comedic and dramatic tones. And the film takes a smart approach to cameos, too (see: a brief appearance from rappers Big Boi and Killer Mike, a nod to both the film’s musical trappings and its Atlanta setting; and a voiceover cameo from director Walter Hill, whose The Driver is one of the film’s main inspiration points).

But aside from Elgort, no one shines quite as brightly as Jon Hamm, in a role that starts as a riff on the charming-sleazeball archetype he’s claimed as his own in post-Mad Men projects like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but soon develops into something more specific, compelling, and even frightening. As with Elgort’s Baby — and really, so much of Baby Driver — Buddy transcends the flat archetypes suggested by the crime genre to become something distinctive and memorable.

Baby Driver is an antidote to blockbuster fatigue

TriStar Pictures

One of my colleagues recently asked me (jokingly, I hope) if Baby Driver is just “The Fast and the Furious for white people.” As a white person, I’m not prepared to fully rebut the second half of that characterization — I will simply note that the casting in Baby Driver is more racially diverse than it’s been in Wright’s previous films — but as an admirer of the Fast & Furious movies, I’ll admit that seeing Baby Driver made me want to go back and retroactively knock a half-star off the Fast & Furious reviews I’ve written.

Don’t get me wrong; the Fast & Furious movies are their own specific things with significantly different aims than Baby Driver. But both properties exist on the same broad spectrum of car-based crime movies. And when it comes to execution and impact, the automotive action in Baby Driver leaves its blockbuster brethren in the dust, for one simple reason: It is actual automotive action.

Unlike the Fast & Furious movies, which use real cars as the basis of heavily CGI-assisted action with little relationship to actual car physics, Baby Driver is built entirely on practical effects and automotive stunt work; Wright strapped himself to the vehicles during shooting, and the immediacy and danger is apparent in every metallic crunch and rumble. Even with all the cinematic accoutrements — the music, the comedy, Wright’s penchant for attention-grabbing camerawork — there’s a purity to Baby Driver’s vehicular mayhem that’s extremely refreshing in a summer movie season where even the best blockbuster action movies tend to devolve into a cacophony of pixels by the big final battle.

But it’s not just the practical action that makes Baby Driver so distinctively appealing in 2017. In a movie system dominated by franchise properties cobbled together by a committee of writers and studio meddlers (you know, the system Wright escaped when he left Ant-Man), there’s a vacuum waiting to be filled by well-executed genre films that stand on their own and exhibit a specific, singular vision — your John Wicks, your Don’t Breathes, and, now, your Baby Drivers. Screeching into theaters in the midst of a heretofore uninspiring summer movie season, Baby Driver is a refreshing shot of counterprogramming, boasting all the thrills and power of a flashy studio blockbuster packed into a sporty, efficient chassis.

Baby Driver is in theaters beginning June 28.

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