2017 – UK/ USA
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, John Hamm, John Bernthal
Words: Josh Senior
The trouble of knocking several really good films out so early on in your film-making career, is that it only increases the anticipation for every film that follows. It’s a nice problem to have, granted, but it’s one that Edgar Wright suffers from currently. Two of his first three films were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, two of the best British films of the 00’s. Tough acts to follow on all accounts, but Wright managed this well with his transatlantic follow up Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, another excellent piece of film-making from this now established directorial talent. 2010’s The World’s End never quite managed to reach those early heights for a number of reasons, and so with the arrival of Baby Driver, are we now watching a director on the wane whose powers are slowly starting to fade?
It’s a difficult question to answer, especially if we use Baby Driver as the piece to measure Wright’s career-to-date against. It might not be his best, but it could have been so much better. The film is based on an idea that found its nexus in a music video that he directed back in 2002, for the band Mint Royale, which starred Noel Fielding. A getaway driver pulls up for a heist and times the length the robbery will take to a song, and then sits and sings along while his colleagues commit the crime. The decision to expand this idea is an odd one, and the premise is stretched quite thin during Baby Driver.
Baby played by Ansel Elgort, literally soundtracks his life to a series of carefully selected songs which help to block out his tinnitus (the cause of which we discover later on). It’s suggested that the beat of the music helps him keep in time (and block out background noise) during the series of difficult escapes he is tasked with driving through. His life is laid out for him by mob-boss Doc (Spacey) who sets up the heists and recruits a various array of thugs and villains to steal money from various banks. Baby is coasting along, quite happy with himself, until he meets Debora (James) in a diner and suddenly his ambitions in life gain a certain clarity. As Baby attempts to uncouple his life from his criminal career the two begin to collide and he realises that walking away from being the Baby Driver may not have been as easy as he thought.
This film has a soundtrack that features a staggering 35 tracks, and it really begins to niggle after 30 minutes or so. Although its enjoyable to see car chases choreographed to tracks by The Damned and Queen, there is a song laced over every scene, and after a while it begins to grate slightly. It’s a clever and unique idea in principal that fails a little bit in execution. It’s also the principal around which the film is built, so your enjoyment of this is paramount to your feelings on the film as whole.
If you take the slightly jaded view, as I do, the closer analysis of the film’s other narrative components shows quite a hollow piece overall. It’s a tad cliche; the young man who has made bad choices, who wants to ride off into the sunset with a girl on his arm and a bag of money. There is also too much emphasis put onto the villains, made up of Doc’s team of thugs. In particular John Hamm who plays what is supposed to be an unhinged lunatic, but comes across as trying too hard. Jamie Foxx is enjoyable in his role but he doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or divergent from his usual shtick. The world of Baby Driver is made up of black and white characters who are either good or evil with very little middle ground. They try to address this towards the end but by then it’s a bit too late.
Now we’re not saying that the film isn’t enjoyable though, because it is. The three heist sequences, that the narrative is propped up by are the best bits of the film. As I believe they are intended to be. The technical achievement of painstakingly choreographing them to the timings of each song is really impressive. There’s also a lot of good comic exchange between Baby and his colleagues, and during the third act some great comedy gore that harks back to the closing sequence in Hot Fuzz. I went in looking for the artistry and ingenuity that Wright excels in and just found myself wanting more. It almost felt like it had been thought about too extensively and that he hadn’t trusted enough in his own intuition.
John Bernthal’s character says very early on to Baby that “in the world of crime you need to get your hands dirty, and one day you will see red”, it’s the moment that is supposed to mark Baby’s journey in the film. That he might not be as cool as he thinks, and that his talents might not be enough on their own to carry him through. This creates an obvious case of serendipity between lead character and director that is really hard to shake off. It’s this illusion of confidence throughout that leaves you feeling a bit empty… but just about entertained. Till next time then…