It’s an action musical. It’s a crime tragicomedy. It’s awesome.
“Baby Driver” is a triumph of road-smoking wheels, high-caliber gun battles, unrelenting thrills and unexpected laughs. It rockets more visceral excitement and solid narrative in a slick, nitro-fueled 112 minutes than seems humanly possible. The sheer wackiness of the film leaves the “Fast and Furious” franchise jealously sucking its exhaust.
The story features a flock of cool baddies and hot lovebirds. Ansel Elgort delivers a “remember that name” performance and movie star smile as Baby, the fresh-faced young wheelman of an Atlanta crime cartel. His earbuds almost never leave his ears, switching between a collection of old-school iPods, each packed with a mix of jams for different moods. They help drown out the noisy tinnitus he developed following a childhood traffic accident. The beats also help him creatively choreograph the clutch grinding and brake stomping in his driving stunts.
Music, in the form of a 35-song soundtrack, is very important here. Writer/director Edgar Wright assembled the sound before beginning the screenplay and sent his actors recordings of the music along with the scripts. Wright isn’t simply placing songs atop scenes, he’s shuffling melody and movement together with the virtuoso skill of a casino croupier. He has crafted a film where the sights and sounds aren’t simply harmonious, they’re homogeneous.
The film opens with a breakneck, car-crunching highway escape sequence, seamlessly edited to the beat of “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The track’s two-minute building intro is a perfect fit for the driver waiting for the end of his passengers’ bank heist. When the rock ’n’ roll really kicks in, it’s getaway time. We flow to a smooth, lengthy tracking shot as Baby goes slip-slide romping along a downtown street in perfect sync with Bob & Earl’s smooth “Harlem Shuffle.” On most of the buildings and walls he passes, key words from the song lyrics are hidden in posters and graffiti, each popping into view precisely on cue.
The people inside the story are as winningly intricate as the soundtrack. Almost everyone in the cast leaves a scary-comic impression. The young antihero Baby was forced into his job as an unarmed speed racer by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind who’s both stern and remarkably fair-minded. Even in a cast of multilayered characters, he stands out, the sort of felon who will set up a major heist while babysitting his little nephew, who has precocious rip-off tendencies of his own. Spacey delivers some of the script’s funniest lines, reacting to the commonplace romantic issues faced by one of his crime crew with a deadpan, “I was in love once.”
Doc’s bank robbing crew includes Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and the runt-ish Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re all entirely committed as trigger men with various levels of hotheaded, coldblooded psychosis. Wright makes them individual, multidimensional and layered, even those who are on-screen for only a few scenes. The sole character who needs serious expanding is a wispy, vanilla-flavored plot device named Debora (Lily James, who does her best to sell it), a fetching coffee shop waitress who inspires Baby to plan his own getaway from the criminal underworld.
It’s a risky lifestyle. Much of “Baby Driver” is focused on whether any of the characters will stay alive through the next epic police gun battle or rocketing getaway demolition derby. Edited with surgical precision to the soundtrack’s pop gems, the melees are not the endless, numbing sequences featured in too many films. These clashes are gorgeously constructed, the mind-blowing fluidity of their combat serving as a sort of setup, and the final blow as the punchline. As Baby’s plan to abscond and undermine the operation emerges, he’s in a lot of gun sights.
Luckily, Wright knows when to take a break and add a little economical storytelling so we can catch our breath. He’s a master of building cinematic castles on genre foundations, as in his cult hits “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End.” Here he uses familiar action ingredients to create a unique mashup. Wright turns a potentially minor heist and getaway movie into a symphonic catalog of pop music. That’s not simply there to provide a steady mood throughout, though it certainly does. The songs are rhythmically synchronized to every on-tempo move and technical effect inside of each shot. There’s minimal dancing here, but the lethal, breathtaking action scenes feel balletic.
“Baby Driver” is loyal to the rhythms and rules of ’70s and ’60s entertainment, blessedly favoring real car stunts over CGI. As you might guess, by the time it gets to the end, the body count is high, the blood is spraying like Coke and Mentos and, as always, there is one more twist. It’s cheesy at heart, but this is artisanal, gourmet cheese — sharp, flavorful and plated with exquisite artistic skill.