FILM REVIEW – BABY DRIVER. With Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx. Written and directed by Edgar Wright. Rated R for language throughout and violence. 113 minutes.
There’s an interesting sub-genre of crime films which focuses on the driver of the getaway car. Standouts include “The Driver” (1978) with Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern and “Drive” (2011) with Ryan Gosling. The films are interesting because rather than focus on the big heist they focus on a supporting player who is, nevertheless, crucial. The whole success of the enterprise depends on his (and it’s inevitably a man) helping the perpetrators elude capture.
In BABY DRIVER, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a gifted driver with some quirks. While he operates a car as an extension of himself, he does it all to a musical soundtrack which he needs to drown out the ringing in his ears, the result of a childhood trauma. For those who know the music, Baby’s soundtrack is part of the fun, but it is by no means a requirement for appreciating the film. (Much of the music was unknown to this reviewer whose musical tastes are eleswhere.)
Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime boss who never uses the same crew twice, excepting Baby, whom he considers his lucky charm. Their backstory is complicated, but Doc knows that as odd as Baby is, he can be relied on, and is granted a full cut of the haul. When we meet him Baby is coming to what he believes is the end of his commitment to Doc and the start of a relationship with Debora (Lily James), a waitress at a local diner.
This is all building up to a big score that will include Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eliza González), and Bats (Jamie Foxx), where we just know that things are not going to go as expected. Part of it is that Baby is not the only one with his own agenda, and the characters start working at cross-purposes. If you realize that writer/director Edgar Wright is the man behind “Shaun of the Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” you know that things are going to go off in strange directions.
Beyond the music track, what the film spotlights is the stunt-driving (don’t try this at home, kids) which is nothing short of spectacular. There’s not much depth to the characters, but Wright and his cast keep our interest by keeping things unpredictable. Foxx’s character is called “Bats” for a reason, and it has nothing to do with baseball or vampires. Spacey hits the right notes as the paternal crime boss who only has to hint what he’s capable of to get his way. However, it’s the relatively unknown Elgort and James who have to pull off the film’s chief task of making their romantic couple sympathetic enough that we care about their fate. Without the heavyweight casting around them, they might not have been able to pull it off, but as part of an ensemble they have no trouble winning us over.
“Baby Driver” is the proverbial summer action movie, but done with enough wit and flair that you don’t feel like you’ve seen it over and over again, in spite of its predecessors. The contrast with much of the summer line up is striking.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.