It’s in an unexpected fusion of musicality and high-stakes grand-theft-auto that writer-director Edgar Wright returns. Kicking up the gears since the lacklustre The World’s End four years ago, this latest genre-hybrid is all screeching tyres and eclectic soundtrack delivered in a retro-style that recalls the Young Hollywood of the late 20th Century. While tipping its cap to a broad range of classic crime thrillers it also manages to take cues from the musically-infused works of recent years. This unlikely mixture successfully delivers high-octane action that revs with attitude, style and virtuosity. Yet Wright also engages in shameless self-indulgence in both his writing, direction and, more seriously, in his portrayal of white criminality. Baby Driver maybe fun, but its also remains symptomatic of deeper cultural problems.
Ansel Elgort plays the eponymous hero, a suitably baby-faced, laconic millennial with a love of old school iPods (how ageing it is to know the black iPod Classic is now considered a retro-device!) and serious skills behind the wheel. A superbly entertaining, frenetic opening sequence straps you into the film’s tense action and upbeat music vibe while knowing comfortably you’re in for the fun. Like his getaway tricks, Baby also spins and turns about the Atlanta City streets with his plastic headphones plugged in to the Commodores, Barry White or Queen in order drown out the world around him. He harbours his issues in almost disassociated silence and eccentric habits. It invites underhand remarks from his unsavoury assortment of crew members (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eva Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal) though he has the trust of criminal kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey). Soon to pay off his own debt to Doc, Baby meets and falls in love with diner waitress Debora (Lily James). Sensing an opportunity to hit the open road and share in their mutual taste in music, Baby only has to complete one more heist to go straight. But settling your debt rarely means leaving the criminal’s life behind and there’s danger when his two lives begin to collide.
Ever since his 90s cinematic-sitcom Spaced, Wright has always been able to fuse an emulative but energetic directorial style that has real panache. As much as Wright uses a variety of music genres in his carefully crafted soundtrack, Baby Driver steals from a number of those classic capers amongst other broader influences. He clearly shows his love for The Italian Job, Bonnie & Clyde, The Driver with allusions to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodrigues’ pulp-fiction oeuvre. The effect is a surface that appeals in its ‘retro-ness’, from turning vinyls and 50’s diners (that has hint of Lucas’ nostalgic American Graffiti) to fluorescent neon lights, coldly lit neo-noir car parks and darker tones of those 70’s and 80’s crime thrillers (with Baby Driver a lighter, adolescent affair to Walter Hill’s 1978 film). But like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright brings his trademark twist of genres together- this time, fusing crime thriller with pop-rock and jazz musical. Seemingly inspired by the recent ‘musical’ features of Damien Chazelle, James Gunn and Baz Luhrmann, Wright allows the tracks to dictate the beats, tone and flow of each scene and action sequence. Whether its musically timed gun-shots, song lyrics sprayed large upon Atlanta City walls or Elgort’s choreographed ‘ballet’ when he goes down the street to grab coffee, it adds another sensual dimension to the film, especially during those rather perfunctory car chases and parkour sequences. The occasional stunt is breathtaking though, while at the same time you hum along to the familiar tune beneath them. It creates a clear contrast with the ominous foreshadowing, the cold-blooded murders being committed silently off-screen. It also tries to retain an innocence and glamour that belies the underworld that Baby stands on the periphery of.
Elgort is great as Baby, his character a shade-wearing throwback to the strong, silent types of yesteryear and while he never has the dark intensity of Ryan O’Neal, he does have the devil-may-care attitude of a younger Harrison Ford. Between his loose shoulders and rabbit-in-the-headlights expressions when witnessing violence, Elgort is certainly showing his talents after playing years of playing a typical teen heartthrob in the Divergent series and in The Fault in Our Stars. Spacey is effective, not given much to do save his Frank Underwood routine of purring villainy and the occasional use of the word ‘fuck’. He looks like he’s enjoying himself though, as it seems are the rest of the cast, with Hamm, Foxx and Gonzalez the right balance of felonious camaraderie, sarcasm and cold menace. Wright’s satirical dialogue, with its self-aware music references, and hilarious setups (especially a joke involving ‘Mike Myers’ disguises) are delivered excellently by this band, but like Baby himself, these supporting characters are quite broadly drawn (with suitably apt alias’) and there is little development. Like the number of expensive, flash cars seen on-screen, they often become functional but with enough repartee to even out the simplicity.
Yet Baby Driver also manages to become symptomatic of the wider cultural representation of white criminality as superior, glamorous and, crucially, justifiable. Wright is not the source of this problem, which is widespread in both the genre and recent television successes such as Breaking Bad and Dexter, but where he takes it further is to have Baby’s own victims excuse his criminal actions towards them. The elderly lady who forgives him in court due to the fact he apologised when he returned her bag mid-heist (he still stole your car) and the bank clerk who he warns off from a bank robbery (while he deliberately murders a man in front of you) is quite galling. Baby still gets to be ‘a kid with a good heart’ who must be sympathetic due to the fact he cares paternalistically for a elderly black deaf foster-father (CJ Jones). He even gets to leave his immaculate prison after serving five years of his twenty-five year prison sentence. No doubt Wright engages in this unconsciously, but its lack of consideration is jarring and uncritically reinforces white privilege. As such, Baby retains his innocence and emerges physically and psychologically unscathed. Its an enormous indulgence that is rarely granted for people of color whether on or off-screen (whose turn to and consequences of their criminality is usually unexplained, presupposed and brutal).
Wright clearly isn’t concerned for these deeper consequences as he is much too involved in making the surface as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Baby Driver can be enjoyed at this level: a high-speed chase thriller with good music and enough self-awareness and indulgence to be genuinely comedic and feel clever. But self-indulgence and a reliance on aesthetic is usually compensating for a lack of depth. This joyride might be entertaining while you’re on it, but its only later you think of the moral consequences.