This adrenaline-rush movie gets the job done, and lovers of stylish movie action – which certainly includes me – will want to see it more than once. Still, British cult auteur Edgar Wright has made some questionable choices that stand in the way of total satisfaction.
The title hero, who actually goes by the name of “Baby”, is a sweet-faced twenty-ish kid who is “hell-on-wheels” driving getaway cars for Doc, played by Kevin Spacey. Doc is a genius at designing robberies, mostly big payoff jobs where the cops will be in hot pursuit, and the wheel-man needs to be top-notch. Doc has never seen anybody like Baby, and considers him his “good-luck-charm”. He uses Baby for every job, but will never use anybody else on the team more than once. In a nod to French crime cinema, where the code of honor between criminals is almost a religion, Baby must pay off a “debt” he incurred by stealing one of Doc’s cars.
Baby is a pretty complex character. As played by Ansel Elgort, he seems carefree enough at first, bopping along the streets of Atlanta to tunes he hears on his iPod which, along with sunglasses, are his identifying accessories. But the iPod’s other function is to relieve the symptoms of tinnitus, which dates from a childhood car accident that also killed Baby’s parents. Since the accident, he was raised by a black man, played by CJ Jones, who is now crippled and dependent on Baby for personal care.
Baby also has a fixation on his dead mother, which manifests itself in several ways: a music tape, labeled “Mom”, of her singing at a local club, and his immediate attraction to a waitress, Debora, played by Lily James, who bears a striking resemblance to her. And, coincidentally, Baby’s mom also worked as a waitress at the same diner.
The iPod is also a clever way for the audience to get a pounding, near continuous score of rhythm-driven tunes to accompany the action. And that action – aside from some routine gunplay – is almost all car chases. These are pretty spectacular, especially when interspersed with aerial views of the Atlanta freeways. Where Wright really pushes it, though, is in the propulsive pop-song score, which throws in everything from Queen to Barry White to Martha and the Vandellas to Toto.
But the best action scenes always depend upon dramatic tension. The romance with Debora – after a cute-meet at the diner – comes into focus soon enough with both of them fantasizing about quitting their jobs and hitting the road together, just a lifetime of love and music. In conflict with this dream is figuring out how Baby will extricate himself from the criminal life, especially when Doc reminds him that he’ll stand to make so much money after the “debt” is repaid, and Baby gets his full share.
But Wright knows this isn’t enough, especially since Doc has a hidden soft spot for Baby, as will be revealed later. Spacey may be given some tough-sounding speeches, but he’s never presented as a real villain. Instead, Wright introduces Jamie Foxx, as Bats and Jon Hamm as Buddy who, along with his gorgeous wife, Darling, played by Elza Gonzalez, seem to want nothing more from life than sex and to kill cops.
But here, I think, is where Wright misjudged a little. Foxx is so good, creating a character so deep-rooted in pure evil, that he nearly steals the picture. Bats seems to have lived in a much nastier world than the other characters; he’s really scary. The problem is that Wright chooses someone else to be Baby’s real antagonist, designing the story, and pacing the action, to lead-up to their final blowout. Oh, it’s exciting alright, but, even while watching it, I couldn’t help imagining Foxx’s character as the one playing out the same action, and to greater impact. It also doesn’t help that Foxx’s actual exit is the single most jaw-dropping moment in the film.
If you’re looking for real car chase action, though, Baby Driver is the real deal. Wright knew he had some tough acts to follow, and he delivered. Since I’m no slavish devotee of the genre, I can’t name the top players after Bullitt, The French Connection, Walter Hill’s The Driver and, the latest entry, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (too often neglected is Don Siegel’s 1958 “The Lineup“), but it’s not likely to disappoint the more zealous fans. Personally, though, I miss the goofy charm of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but that may be my failing. There’s so much detail in the chases, with such fast editing, that I bet there’s lots of in-jokes waiting to be discovered. For next time.
Something else about the film bothered me, though, and it has to do with its intended audience. I prefer gritty crime pictures, where the (anti)heroes have more than a knowing acquaintance with violence. For me, Goodfellas has it over The Godfather on that point, if nothing else. With its bloody shootouts and steeped-in-evil characters like Bats, Baby Driver seems related to a harsher, unforgiving view of life. But there’s nothing in Elgort’s performance that shows he ever lived in such a world. He’s as fresh and dewy as a Boy Band unit, and his close-ups – which Wright has possibly limited for that reason – don’t begin to convey the strain and traumatic burdens of the character. His squeaky-clean romance with Debora seems to belong to a different picture altogether.
And that’s why the film’s R-rating is such a shock. There’s no nudity, the sex is only some heavy kissing, the language is the norm for cable, so the violence and blood must be the reason for it. Still, the way many action films avoid the “R” is by very rapid editing, which quickly lead you past the disturbing images into safe territory. From that perspective, it would seem to be a solid PG-13. And I think that Wright counted on that. Do the math: with a pretty-boy hero, young-adult romance and hot, hot car chase action, you’d expect a heavy turnout from teenagers eager for summer-time fun.
I’ve looked at online reviews from teen audiences, and many responders, especially the boys, are stunned by the rating. They say there’s nothing in it they haven’t seen in PG-13 and cable. Even though the film is considered a success – and there’s early buzz of a sequel – the loss in revenue could be in the tens of millions. To me, Sony and Tri-star dropped the ball by not pushing harder for a PG-13.