As recent Hollywood legend goes, Baby Driver director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) dreamt up his film’s high concept as a student in the mid ‘90s. Moved by the garage rock bombast of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s (JSBX) 1994 single Bell Bottoms, Wright envisioned a muscular, Bullitt-style car-chase scene set to the track’s primal thrust.
That high concept? Baby, a hyper-competent getaway driver – played by The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort – spins a constant oldies-but-goodies soundtrack through ever-present headphones to drown out his tinnitus as he abets his criminal employers.
Fulfilling Wright’s university-era vision, Baby Driver opens with crims Buddy (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), his girl Darling (Eiza González, Jem and the Holograms) and Griff (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) pulling off a bank robbery and subsequent escape sound tracked by JSBX’s Bell Bottoms.
Baby is a good kid in a bad situation. In debt to sinister mastermind Doc, portrayed with signature droll menace by Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), we meet the fresh-faced wheelman on the cusp of a heist that will square the ledger for good.
Nodding to the visceral, muscle-car fetishising cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Baby Driver eschews the weightless, plastic digital effects of modern vehicular mayhem tentpoles – Need for Speed, Transformers – in favour of rending metal, peeling rubber and cop-thwarting antics characteristic of directors Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (Heat) and John Landis (The Blues Brothers) in their prime.
Having quickly established the hardboiled criminal underworld of Atlanta, Wright subverts his audience’s expectations with a soul tune driven, nimbly choreographed dance sequence centring on Baby’s post-heist daily routine. This nostalgic nod to the technicolor romantic comedies of the 1940s and ‘50s chafes against the gritty violence of the film’s central conceit, bringing to mind a benign spin on David Lynch’s lurid 1989 genre mashup Wild At Heart.
Further delving into the tropes of ‘50s teen cinema, Baby meets cute with diner waitress Deborah (the main characters’ names are engineered for maximum soundtrack value, of course), played by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Lily James. In true fairy-tale style the pair are quickly head-over-heels and plotting to hit the road out of town permanently.
That’s when Baby is, inevitably, lured into one last job.
The car-chase-jukebox-musical is a lonely cinematic niche. Recent examples might generously include Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘80s synth-heavy neon-noir Drive (itself heavily influenced by the work of Michael Mann), and 1980s cult classic The Blues Brothers, perhaps the all-time cinematic standard for physics defying demolition derby-meets-musical hybrid.
Tonally, Baby Driver evokes Quentin Tarantino’s bipolar 2007 grindhouse experiment, Deathproof. Tarantino, like Wright, is a VHS and soundtrack obsessive, deftly marrying image, music and editing in propulsive, white-knuckle displays of energetic celluloid bravura. Deathproof hinges on Tarantino’s bowerbird-like trips across the AM-radio band, marrying ‘70s AOR to ‘80s punk to ‘90s hip hop while referencing the drive-in films and bottom shelf VHS excesses of the director’s youth. Baby Driver shares a wildly divergent tone in common with Deathproof, its sunny musical vistas upended by bone-crunching handbrake turns into abrupt, nasty violence.
The chief architect of said violence is introduced mid-film – in the form of Jamie Foxx’s aptly named Bats – an unhinged thug whose initial crew includes a doomed, Coen-esque criminal duo played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Lanny Joon (LOST).
With Baby’s fairytale ending jeopardised by Bats’ addition to Baby’s “one last job” crew, Wright’s film starts hitting the skids, its uneasy collision of romance, sentimentality, heist flick and Fast and Furious torque erupting into a fangless, suspense-free riff on James Cameron’s Terminator films.
As a bubblegum crime film – genus training wheels Tarantino, if you will, Baby Driver is a misfire. Granted, the film is a marvel of editing, choreography, stunt work and soundtrack curation. Nonetheless Baby Driver groans under the weight of hyperbole, unrealistic expectations and a muddled tone.
Sadly, Wright’s love letter to a childhood filled with VHS and vinyl ultimately succumbs to a petrol tank full of sugar just as it should be attempting to put pedal to the metal.