Like millions of film and car fans, I love movies with the words fast and furious in the title. The motorcycles, cars, and submarines are fast; the humor (Dwayne Johnson!) is silly. Realistic the Furious franchise is not. Watching The Fate of the Furious earlier this year we were bearing witness to one huge special effects show featuring Vin Diesel.
The reason I bring it up is Baby Driver, the latest outstanding effort by the British action director and screenwriter Edgar Wright, who brings us an old-school car chase movie. The film contains heists, a tragic love story, and incredible driving by a handsome young criminal called Baby (Ansel Elgort).
Baby is the designated getaway driver for a rotating group of bank robbers led by Doc, a brooding Kevin Spacey. Inseparable from his white ear buds Baby is constantly listening to a wide range of very loud music while he waits for his fellow criminals, then speeds through the streets of Atlanta. This young driver is so extremely good at his job no one can ever stop or catch him.
The film is full of thrills, but they never feel cheap. In the combination of speed, action, a brilliant soundtrack, a good story, and very good acting Wright has found something that is rare for an action heist. Baby Driver is not just cool but elegant — as if a hyper-realistic video game were designed by an artist with taste.
The crime story itself is hardly special. A young man is indebted to a criminal (Spacey). To pay of his debts Baby, whom we can sense is a good man at heart, must work for the man. Among the characters he drives to safety are a violently unstable former banker named Buddy, played with abandon by John Hamm. Eiza González is his sullen, sexy criminal-girlfriend. The vicious-looking Griff is played by Jon Bernthal, who earlier displayed his ferociousness in The Accountant. Jamie Foxx shows up as an evil criminal ready to blow off anyone’s head at any given moment.
The scenes after the robberies are the work of a genius. How Wright and his stunt drivers pulled this off I’m not sure, but the chase sequences make the Furious films look like cheap experiments in CGI. Here, no cars fall from airplanes, no drivers jump from trains. The cars do what cars do: drive. Wright is known for his dislike of green screens and computer-generated effects. He likes truth, and it shows in the action scenes. Baby Driver conveys a heightened sense of reality as well as pure joy. Adrenaline will course through anyone’s body watching Baby take little sedans, powerful SUVs, and everything in between on the wildest of rides.
What makes the film elegant is not just the driving but the depth of Baby’s character. The way he falls for the waitress Debora (Lily James) is sweet, but I found his relationship with Joseph (CJ Jones) more affecting. A deaf, lonely man who can’t walk, he mostly watches television alone. Joseph has raised Baby. In their homey scenes together Baby jokes around in sign language, makes Joseph sandwiches, and cares for the old man with stolen money and genuine love.
Jones, a stage and TV actor who can hear, was raised by deaf parents. His role as a worried, kind old man who can’t hear genuinely moved me. Without a word, he manages to steal the show. Come award season he might be noticed for this supporting part.
Through their relationship and the growing love between Baby and Debora we learn about Baby’s background: an abusive father, a beloved mother who was a singer killed in the car crash that gave Baby his hearing problem, which is why he needs loud music at all times. As the layers of Baby’s past are peeled back, we care more and more for the story and Baby’s trouble. He is the quiet type, like many criminals in movie history. But Edgar Wright shows patiently why Baby is that way. I can’t really recall the last (or first) time I’ve seen such an intelligent, character-driven heist-action-car flick. Funny how it sometimes takes a foreign director to make a deeply American film; see also Hell or High Water, directed by the Scotsman David Mackenzie.
The soundtrack, a tour through recent musical history, is insanely good, as is the timing of the songs. Every step, each time Baby shifts gears there is a well-timed beat in a perfect song to go along with it. Wright wrote and directed the action-comedy Hot Fuzz and the zombie franchise Shaun of the Dead. His musical taste was clear in those, too. Baby Driver sets a new standard for any filmmaker who wants the soundtrack to be a key supporting character. Wright stretched out action scenes to fit certain songs. His script became flexible to accommodate Bellbottoms (rock), Harlem Shuffle (bluesy soul), Easy (pleasant pop), and 27 other songs matched to the action.
The first half of Baby Driver is stronger than the second, when the action becomes a bit convoluted — perhaps the only fair comparison to the very fun and utterly convoluted Furious series. Still, the 1 hour and 53 minutes provide a nonstop, thrilling ride, with Wright and Elgort confidently at the wheel.