Baby (Ansel Elgort) waits, chair-dancing in the getaway car, mouthing the lyrics to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” turning on the windshield-wipers to the rhythm, and playing air-violin before the rest of the crew leaves the target with their heisted goods, hops in the car; and Baby careens them through Atlanta in one of the most impressively cool car-chase sequences ever put to film; that, just like Baby’s car-dancing, syncs perfectly to the soundtrack.
That’s how Baby Driver begins, quickly finding its rhythm and riding it all the way to the credit roll, never missing a step or dropping a beat.
Baby dances – sometimes literally – through the movie, the lead in a masterfully choreographed sequence of car chases, shootouts, double-crosses, and meet-cutes. He’s a criminal by career, but not by character; his stoic laconicism during heist-planning giving way to exuberant dancing in his apartment after falling for a local waitress, Debora (Lily James). He’s cool either way, confident that whether behind the wheel or just on a coffee run, he can stylishly swerve and slalom through any obstacles in his way, all in time to an expertly needledropped soundtrack curated by writer/director Edgar Wright.
All this stylization surrounds a pretty basic story. Baby is the favorite wheelman of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal kingpin who plans heists consisting of a rotating group of goons, including the romantically linked Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez), intimidating Griff (Jon Bernthal), and impulsive Bats (Jamie Foxx). But unlike them, Baby is just in it to pay off a debt to Doc, and after his last job, plans to drive into the sunset with his the waitress he recently fell for. But, of course, crime doesn’t let you go that easily, and Doc drags Baby into one last gig by threatening Debora. And, of course, that gig runs into a few hitches.
Despite it’s simplicity, all the actors imbue their characters with deep personalities. Spacey launched his career playing a kingpin, and brings a playful gravitas to Doc; and Hamm is better in this movie than he’s been in anything since Black Mirror, playing Buddy almost as the cool deadbeat dad who is fun to spend a day with but is clearly too irresponsible to raise a child. Same for Gonzalez, who plays a way better version of what Margot Robbie was going for with Harley Quinn. Foxx dances on the line between impulsive and crazy, turning Bats into a character that’s untrustworthy, but not deranged. Bernthal plays…well, the same character he always does – but is really good at it. James doesn’t get much to work with, with Debora being very much just a romantic interest, but still makes her exactly the sort of girl you want to run away with seconds after meeting.
With his “can’t stop just go” attitude, Baby is a character perfectly suited to writer/director Edgar Wright’s style, which favors silky tracking shots and inventive scene transitions that maintain visual and emotional momentum from one scene to the next. Wright is as much a natural behind the camera as Baby is behind a wheel, working by his own instinctual rhythm and carrying us along for the ride. And it’s catchy as all get out.
The car chases in Baby Driver provide a stunning contrast to the cut-heavy, CG laden action beats of most contemporary action cinema. We spend a lot of time with Baby and the crew in the cars, getting a visceral feel for each chase and stunt, with shots from outside the car serving to let us experience the world as Baby must see things from his savant-like perspective while driving. Chases don’t just stay in cars, either, as the crew regularly gets out on foot in order to evade cops who are looking for specific make and models more than names or faces. By the final chase, things become not unlike a player in Grand Theft Auto desperate to bring down a 5-star wanted level, as the crew hops from car to car, guns blazing, dodging cops that spawn just off-camera. And the on-foot chases are just as frenetic as the car ones, and are better suited to show off Elgort’s physical nimbleness as an actor, and how, as long as he’s got his music going, Baby can really dance through any situation.
In ways, Baby Driver behaves more like a musical or music video than an action film, in more ways than just by keeping pace to a soundtrack. Baby Driver infects the audience with their own cases of head-nodding, foot-tapping, or full on chair-dancing. Baby’s confidence, bolstered by the sureness of Wright’s direction, invites audiences into the movie and amazes by making its incredibly difficult and intricately choreographed series of chases, set-ups, and punchlines look easy like Sunday morning.