Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a getaway driver who works for a wealthy slimeball (Kevin Spacey). Baby is the best there is, as no cop can catch him and he’s never blown an assignment. His hearing impairment, a “hum in the drum,” makes him reliant on music to keep his rhythm sharp and daily life tolerable.
From the opening credits, Wright’s film synchronizes all of the sound effects with the ample songs and action. Everything from car crashes, shoot-outs and even the flip of a wad of money are all rhythmically in sync in nearly every single scene.
In the establishing moments, when Elgort nimbly dances around his neighborhood and in his apartment and speaks in sign language to his foster dad, the whole thing has a lightness and welcome playfulness. The action is exciting but not too intense and the emphasis is on the love story over all else.
Elgort survived the wretched The Fault in Our Stars and the lousy Divergent franchise and now has a role that requires more than posing. Well, only a bit more, as Baby is a too-cool-for-school character that mostly requires Elgort to brood effectively. Lily James, star of the recent live action Cinderella remake, gives heart to the role of Deborah, the waitress who turns Baby lovestruck; James and Elgort are as good as they need to be in these roles, which are one-note and more symbols than anything else.
Playing criminals for hire, Jamie Foxx hasn’t been this interesting in a while and Jon Hamm is effective as a seemingly sympathetic bank robber. Still, as good as the actors are (including Spacey, playing the prototypical too-smart-for-the-room Kevin Spacey character), these characters are beneath them. Why Hamm, one of the most charismatic actors of our generation, has such poor luck getting better movie roles (including Keeping Up with the Joneses and Million Dollar Arm) is beyond me.
It seemed as though Edgar Wright had finally made a movie with an ending that didn’t self-destruct or lose grip of a carefully established tone (a problem that even plagued his first, best film, Shaun of the Dead). Unfortunately, while much of Baby Driver ably zooms along, it finally drives headlong into a scrap heap.
I don’t blame Wright for offering elaborate set pieces that pay tribute to films by Walter Hill, Michael Mann and Katherine Bigelow. These sequences are fun and stretch the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World filmmaker. But the third act takes a dark, violent turn that the movie doesn’t deserve or know what to do with. The way Baby’s hearing impairment reaches its ultimate conclusion is right out of Cop Land and the character’s final journey is over-extended and unconvincing. So are the well-staged but hokey final confrontations between good and evil. Spacey’s character, in particular, has last-minute motivation changes that are greatly at odds with the rest of the movie. By abandoning the sweetness and light touch of the early scenes, Baby Driver tries to match the grit of the films that inspired it and comes up looking puny. Call it Drive lite.
An attempt to mix and match ’70s era-modern day music tracks into a cohesive soundtrack is met with mixed results. This is no Tarantino film, as the songs are fun but aren’t a game changer for the film in the way the choice cuts for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are.
Wright certainly has a style, makes clever (and sometimes radical) editing choices and clearly loves movies. Yet his films are currently too juvenile and tonally shaky for him to join the big leagues. Baby Driver begins like a Fast and Furious movie with soul then hedges its bets, settles for formula and undermines its novel choices.
Had Baby Driver opened in spring, against far better B-movie upgrades like John Wick: Chapter Two and Get Out, it might have disappeared quickly. Now, appearing against a sea of uninspired summer movie clunkers with numbers at the end of their title, Wright’s movie feels like a breath of fresh air.
Too bad it’s just a breath.
Two and a Half Stars