Genre hybridization may be de rigueur, but it’s also an inherently tricky proposition. To say that I was pleasantly surprised by the masterful balance writer/director Edgar Wright has struck between his disparate influences is higher praise than I expected to be able to give his latest, Baby Driver.
Wright has always been hit-or-miss for me — for every certifiable classic like Shaun of the Dead, there’s a Scott Pilgrim that makes me question my assessment of his sensibilities. So when I first encountered the trailers for what seemed likely to be a self-indulgent amalgam of car-chase caper flicks (which I love) and musicals (which I hate), I set the odds at better than 50/50 that I’d come away as a vocal detractor. I’m glad I was wrong.
The comparison to musicals is apt, as the only thing Baby is missing on that count is its characters spontaneously bursting into song. But there’s more going on here than those comparisons would imply, as Wright’s impeccably choreographed long takes avoid the pacing pitfalls that I find so painfully pervasive in the musical genre. It certainly helps matters that the majority of the film’s musical sequences involve some of the best car chases since Bullitt or The French Connection, flawlessly executed by cinematographer Bill Pope. Wright’s sense of stylization is indeed self-indulgent, but his frenetic verve is so engaging, and his selective employment of cinematic influences so entertaining, that his indulgence never crosses the line into self-important pomposity.
As with much of Wright’s prior work, those influences are key to Baby’s raison d’être. The story follows the eponymous Baby, a juvenile delinquent with a talent for getaway driving and a passion for music played with aw-shucks affability by Ansel Elgort, whose debt to underworld kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) is almost paid up. If the “one more job” conceit is particularly tired, here it’s played more as homage than retread, and it works. Baby’s not much of a talker, and comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive — but Baby is really more indebted to that film’s inspiration, Walter Hill’s underrated 1978 Ryan O’Neil vehicle, The Driver. Throw in a heavy dose of Reservoir Dogs and a dash of Vanishing Point, and it becomes clear that Wright is interested in making a soundtrack-driven crime thriller rather than a musical with a caper component.
That soundtrack is a winner, with eclectic cuts ranging from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to Queen and everything in between, and along with pitch-perfect turns from an exceptional supporting cast including Lily James, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx, Baby Driver keeps the moment in top gear for most of the film. A tacked-on denouement is the only point at which the film falters, but by the time it rolls around, most viewers will have enjoyed the ride sufficiently to give it a pass. As far as fast-paced fun at the movies, it’s hard to imagine that anything this summer will rival Baby in terms of sheer likability. It’s not high art, but it was never supposed to be. Baby Driver exists to remind us that movies can still be unmitigated exercises in entertainment, plain and simple. Rated R for violence and language throughout. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.