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Edgar Wright and Ansel Elgort

Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors. I adore his films for their mastery of both verbal and non-verbal humor conveyed through visuals. On top of being laugh-out-loud funny, his comedies can withstand the most rigorous rewatches (I lost count on how many times I’ve watched Hot Fuzz, and it’s always as hilarious as the last time). There is one quality that sets Wright apart from contemporary comedy directors: his ability to choreograph and block an action scene. Scott Pilgrim vs The World was especially a testament to Wright’s attention to choreography; he transformed Michael Cera, the actor who was famous for always being type-casted as a timid weakling, into a capable martial artist. The editing techniques Wright employed imbibed his film with energetic forward momentum that could match the fast-paced action he shot. So when Baby Driver was announced, it immediately caught my attention. A modern musical about bank heists and car chases attached to a talented director who could pull it off? Sign me up!

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Doc

Baby (no, that is not his real name) is a prodigy driver with a weird quirk: he always has a pair of earbuds in his ears. As Doc (Kevin Spacey) explains to one perplexed crew member, Baby (Ansel Elgort) suffers from tinnitus from a car accident that killed both of his parents. To drown out the endless ringing in his ears, music became an indispensable part of his life. Our protagonist demonstrated his skill at stealing and driving cars at a very young age, but unfortunately one of the cars he stole (and the precious cargo within) belonged to Doc, a ruthless criminal mastermind. Doc did not hesitate for a moment before making Baby a permanent member of his heist crew, allowing Baby to pay off his debt through labor. The “partnership” takes a turn for the worse when Doc and Baby begin to have different ideas as to what Baby’s future will be when his debt is paid.

In a typical musical, actors break into song and dance to the music they sing to. However, Baby Driver isn’t your typical musical. This is where Wright’s trademark “matching motions to the music” technique really shines. The dances in Baby Driver are gunfights and mechanical mayhem—warning shots aimed at a bank’s ceiling, 180 degree tire-burning drift in broad daylight, and police cars crashing into civilian ones. The high-octane actions were all cut to the rhythm of the song which was playing on Baby’s iPod at the time. Baby’s music players are the source of this film’s music, and the movie is committed to putting the audience inside Baby’s shoes (or in this case, his ears); the soundtrack reverts to mono sound when Baby takes one earbud out, and the ringing returns when no music is playing.

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Car chase!

The music/motion synchronization does not exclusively accompany violence; Baby also listens to music on his downtime. When Elgort is not playing the cool, confident outlaw, he becomes a silly music lover who seeks to make the surrounding world be a part of his soundtrack, and sometimes Baby does dabble in making his own soundtrack (from remixing his tape recordings). One particular scene filled me with great delight. The coffee-run segment that follows the cold-opening chase is a lengthy one-take of Baby shuffling to the tune in his ears. The noises of the streets such as police siren, pedestrian conversations, and beeping sound of an ATM machine all magically serve as chorus for Harlem Shuffle. It may not be as blood-pumping as a car chase, but the perfect choreography raises the scene to an entire different level.

The rest of Doc’s heist crew are also staunch proponents of Wright’s rule of cool as well. Each of the well-dressed members is referred to only by a pseudonym, and every one of them is smoking hot. Jon Hamm and Eiza González’s Buddy and Darling are a modern Bonnie and Clyde who could not keep their hands off each other. Jamie Foxx’s Bats is swagger incarnate, but he also has an added layer of blood-thirsty insanity to make him genuinely terrifying.   

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Robbing a bank…in style

Baby Driver was Edgar Wright’s passion project. This was the movie he wanted to make ever since his youth; in fact, he had been picking out the soundtrack in his head long before the project was greenlit. Wright’s chief objective for Baby Driver was to make it as stylish and as suave as possible, and on that front he one hundred percent nailed it. But the problem with a passion project is sometimes it lacks discipline and polish; Wright has all the elements to paint a romantic image of an outlaw with a heart of gold, but the elements themselves at times do not mesh well or are not fully developed in the final product.

One of the film’s biggest weakness is Baby’s love interest, Deborah (Lily James). Deborah is a waitress of a diner Baby likes to frequent, and the two immediately bond over their shared passion for music at their first meeting. James plays a happy-go-lucky young woman, but her defining trait is her love for the protagonist. She somehow becomes fiercely loyal to Baby despite knowing very little about him (she does not learn Baby’s real name until literally minutes before the movie ends), and she is content with her few questions left unanswered by Baby even though she knows she is about to get into life-threatening danger. She is the protagonist’s love interest because a romantic story demands it. There’s not much else I can tell you about her for she’s not much of a character. Deborah is a person-shaped story device filling the void in our hero’s fast car, serving only the purpose of raising the dramatic stakes. 

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Deborah and Baby

Another instance of Baby Driver putting the cart before the horse is the jarring tonal shift in the movie. For a movie that teaches the viewer to revel in the protagonist’s quick wit and confidence while engaging in criminal activity, Baby spend a significant portion of the second half sullenly being thrown around by more powerful forces. Baby Driver becomes Baby Passenger of the plot. On top of that, Baby doesn’t make the smartest decisions in the latter half; blind luck and plot contrivance play a hand in his survival. The movie’s last minutes are a series of emotional whiplashes. The movie first eases down from Baby’s successful escape with a “crime doesn’t pay” message—yet another case of narrative dissonance—and the message itself holds very little weight because Baby Driver quickly snaps back to a lighter note for the ending.

Baby Driver boasts one of the most exciting and brilliantly edited action sequences in cinema, and the film oozes with style from its every pore. However, certain story elements weigh down the movie, preventing it from returning to the confident strides it makes at its beginning.

★★★½

Written by Chi-Tsung Chang

I am a Taiwanese born film, Sci-Fi novel, and Florence + the Machine enthusiast. Follow me @AtravellerERA on twitter https://letterboxd.com/Atraveller/

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