Baby (Ansel Elgort) suffers from tinnitus, a lingering symptom of a car crash which killed both of his parents, and as a result, listens to music almost constantly to drown out the hum. He’s a total savant behind a steering wheel and has been Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) go-to getaway driver for his latest string of heists, working off a past debt for attempting to steal the crime boss’ car. For these jobs, Doc always assembles a different crew, employing unscrupulous criminals and giving them code names, like Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Elza Gonzales), and Bats (Jamie Foxx).
When he’s not weaving and drifting to his own beat, narrowly escaping the police pursuit, Baby takes care of his deaf foster father, Joseph (C.J. Jone) and creates mixtapes from recorded conversations. He also frequents a diner where his mother used to work. There he meets a waitress, Debora (Lily James) and the two immediately hit it off, making plans to head west and find a new life for themselves.
Before that can happen, however, Baby must take part in one more job for Doc. But these jobs are wearing heavily on Baby, and he can’t stand to see more innocent people harmed or killed. Baby wants out, so while playing along like he’s following the plan, he secretly plots his escape.
Edgar Wright is a writer/director with style. All of his films come with a visual panache and quirky banter that is uniquely his own. Whether it be the famed Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, or even Marvel’s Ant-Man — a project he spent almost a decade developing, only to leave before filming ever began — they each bear his mark.
The very same can be said of Baby Driver. It isn’t a genre spoof like the Cornetto films, but an honest-to-goodness car chase thriller, with slick action sequences and a peppering of uproariously funny gags all set against a killer soundtrack. It’s also a sweet story of young love and charting your own path and it’s astounding the film balances all these elements so well. Baby Driver marks a moment of maturation for Wright as a writer and director, promising that his best work still lies ahead.
Those flourishes Wright’s work is known for, like the quick-cutting, are used in new ways in Baby Driver. Where in Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim a fast cut would land a joke, here it’s used to build tension and excitement. There is humor, certainly, but it’s more often used to undercut serious scenes or mask a grim turn of events. The music is particularly important not only because its Baby’s personal soundtrack, but because it creeps into everything — the editing, the pacing, even bullets fire and ricochet in beat with the soundtrack. The film builds and builds until that moment in all of Wright’s movies where the plot just goes off the rails. And when Baby Driver goes off the rails, it’s pure insanity from there until the very end.
What makes Baby Driver such a thrill — besides some wild car chases, obviously — is its combination of great writing and great performances. Wright’s dialogue in the mouth of an actor as immensely talented as Kevin Spacey is a marvel, and as he chews on each line it’s evident what a total blast he’s having. Not to be outdone, Jamie Foxx lets his crazy out, giving Baby (and us) an uneasy feeling about whatever it is Bats will do next. Then there’s Hamm and Gonzales’ Buddy and Darling, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde pairing who’ll have your back as long as they get paid. Hamm especially gives a fantastic turn, being both charming and menacing when it’s called for, proving all the more that he needs a starring role in a major motion picture and fast.
With all these outrageous characters, Elgort’s Baby is a bit subdued by comparison. This is partially because his earbuds are always in, distancing him from the craziness all around, but through his relationships with his foster father and later Debra we learn of his caring nature. Baby’s a sympathetic character, so when it comes time for him to stand up for himself, we’re completely invested. Baby and Debra’s love affair has a similar underdog quality to it. Elgort and James are so pure in their depiction of young love, it’s hard not to root for something sincere to succeed in this ugly world.
Baby Driver is Wright’s best film to date and a tour de force for all involved. From start to finish the film never lets up, creating a frenetic pace that only ever slows down to let the actors bounce their characters off one another. It’s funny, thrilling and exceedingly clever in its premise and execution. If only all summer action movies could be this fun and smart.