Film: Baby Driver

It’s tempting to open this review with an effusive shout of “Edgar Wright has done it again!” But that would be misleading, because with Baby Driver (2017) he hasn’t done it again; he’s done something different, a gloriously retro action adventure from the crime-doesn’t-pay genre that benefits from Wright’s usual high-energy creative flourishes, slick visuals, and infectious sense of humor. It also brilliantly deploys an inspired soundtrack and inventive sound design, helping make this the director’s most satisfying audio-visual experience yet.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver extraordinaire: a quirky, inscrutable young loner who drowns out a permanent case of tinnitus with a perpetual stream of iPod music. Baby’s self-possessed confidence hides a crisis of conscience—his life of crime persists only because he’s deeply in debt to a mastermind criminal kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey). But there’s light at the end of the tunnel as Baby closes in on that elusive One Last Job that will free him from Doc’s influence. Or so he thinks; he may just be too good at what he does to make a clean break of it, and as events escalate, his pose of breezy detachment is challenged at every turn by the loose cannons and ruthless heavies with whom he’s forced to work—and who ultimately threaten everything Baby loves.

With its mix of heists, car chases, criminal banter, and violent action, Baby Driver is joyously reminiscent of a classic 1970s crime caper. It’s got the wheelman, the man with the plan, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, the retinue of shady characters—all the juicy ingredients of a throwback action flick. All this appealing material is reimagined, however, through Wright’s inimitable contemporary lens, which means there are loud laughs and slick techniques, eye-popping styles and comical stunts. It all adds up to a high-velocity, hyperkinetic ride, backed by a steady stream of smartly chosen music that informs and cleverly adds texture to every scene, especially when the gunshots and explosions and slamming car doors sync up rhymytically to the backbeats and cymbal crashes. But that’s not the only area the sound design adds unforgettable style. The audio mix is inspired, as Baby’s tinnitus, his interactions with his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), and the way his earbuds pop in and out to texture the action provide a perfect accompaniment to the visuals, not just as entertaining sensory input but as a running thematic cue for Baby’s rapidly fleeing innocence. Music is Baby’s escape, but he can’t escape his life choices, and as the stakes escalate, it gets more and more difficult to sustain his comforting soundtrack of blissful ignorance.

Before this film, I’d never heard of Ansel Elgort, but Baby Driver sure put him on my radar. He sells Baby’s one-step-removed vibe with an effortless cool that would make Steve McQueen proud. He drives, dances, and parkours his way through the adventure with a perverse charisma that overwhelmed my initial instinct to reject his baby-faced charms. The brutal criminals in his crew, including Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm, have no such forgiveness, though, and watching these formidable heavies meet their match in such an unlikely personality adds another level of fun. A shrewdly cast-to-type Spacey adds his usual slick menace, and Lily James supplies the requisite love-interest chemistry as Baby’s new civilian ally as he tries to extricate himself from his reluctant criminal career.

A dark seventies caper would probably end tragically, and I waited in dread to see if Wright would stay true to that model, but fortunately he defies expectation again with an unexpected yet uncommonly satisfying resolution. Wright’s films have always had that little extra something, but he goes another step further with Baby Driver, which not only works clever variations on the classic crime caper, but on his own, already unpredictable body of work.

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