The Daring Genius of ‘Baby Driver’

Only British director Edgar Wright would dream of mashing up such a disparate pair of Gosling movies as 'Drive' and 'La La Land,' and he does so with great verve in the new 'Baby Driver.'

click to enlarge Ansel Elgort is the music-loving getaway driver Baby. - Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
Ansel Elgort is the music-loving getaway driver Baby.
A sense of cool bordering on the existential fueled Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, about a stuntman and mechanic (Ryan Gosling) who also moonlights as a getaway driver. Anonymous and impossibly skilled, Gosling’s driver is straight out of urban mythology, a modern version of Clint Eastwood’s nameless gunslingers of old, with even less to say about the sorry state of affairs around him.

Gosling switched things up in Damien Chazelle’s 2016 hit La La Land, settling into another familiar character groove; this time as an idealistic Jazz man struggling to make a living playing in cover bands and knocking out bland reinterpretations of holiday tunes. Also cool and driven, yet this time Gosling gets lifted by love, which Chazelle spotlights time and again via thrillingly ethereal, dynamic musical set pieces.

Only British director Edgar Wright would dream of mashing up such a disparate pair of Gosling movies, and he does so with great verve in the new Baby Driver. That’s because he understands that the one thing — beyond the presence of Gosling — that links Drive and La La Land together is their genuine appreciation for propulsive action. 

It is easy to look at Wright’s filmography and get lost in the comedic lunacy, rather than the mastery of momentum, on display. His Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz and The World’s End featured a smart and fizzy partnership with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that gleefully tackled zombies, buddy cops and, ultimately, the end of the world. 

In Baby Driver, Wright shamelessly samples from Drive, introducing audiences to a savant-like getaway driver named Baby (an appropriately baby-faced Ansel Elgort) indentured to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mysterious crime boss who assembles Reservoir Dogs-inspired teams of robbers for bank heists. Baby’s cool derives from his reliance on music to drown out the ringing in his ears, caused by a childhood accident. The kid moves through the world aided and abetted by a near-constant stream of hip tunes from an assortment of iDevices.

Baby certainly has the beat, which allows Wright the opportunity to create a dizzy and engaging collection of musical moments that deliver a direct adrenalized rush to the audience. The cacophonous mayhem of screeching tires, the delirious crackle and stutter of gunshots and the crystalized shattering of glass — along with a stream of Pop Art-styled one-liners — provides Wright with material for a never-ending remix of sound and fury, signifying that we’re in for a wild summer ride in which we’re riding shotgun the whole way without a seatbelt.

In the hands of an aural and visual DJ like Wright, Baby Driver transforms into a thoroughly modern musical of the moment. It’s as if the film is sampling, or channeling, other films as well as songs — a scene of Baby sauntering along with coffee for the crew after a job is reminiscent of the innocence in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s morning-after strut in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer.

But thanks to the zing supplied by Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx as standout members of Doc’s high-octane robber team, Baby Driver also works as a crime thriller, albeit one that succumbs to its own violently exaggerated urges. The supporting players perfectly exploit their recognizable natures, without upsetting the delicate overall tonal balance. 

Things get complicated once Baby believes he has done his final job for Doc and starts wooing Debora (Lily James), a cute waitress at his favorite diner. The youthful banter between the two budding lovers serves as a fitting contrast to the hardcore barbs and heightened tension among the team of criminal rivals.

Wright has never pushed the violence quite this far before, but thanks to his quicksilver sense of timing, he never allows the bloody excess to overstay its welcome. What he has accomplished in Baby Driver deserves mention alongside Quentin Tarantino’s efforts like Kill Bill and Jackie Brown.

But Wright’s not slavishly copying the Tarantino playbook like so many filmmakers did when Pulp Fiction became a cultural trendsetter. Instead, Baby Driver feels like Wright is elevating his own game, while tipping his hat to a host of his fellow big-league players. (Opens Wednesday at area theaters.) (R) Grade: A-

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