Edgar Wright. Everything he touches turns to fried gold. Right?
When your CV includes cult comedy classic Spaced, the genre-defying Cornetto Trilogy and the inimitable Scott Pilgrim vs The World, anything short of amazing feels like a disappointment. This is the feeling of anticipation that accompanies Baby Driver, the director’s first feature since his fall out from Ant Man and the MCU.
With a tagline claiming ‘all you need is one killer track’, audiences have been clamoring to get their eyes and ears around the heist thriller since the first trailers landed. And from the off, it’s full throttle.
The first twenty five minutes is unadulterated Wrighteousness™: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘Bellbottoms’ sets the tone as the getaway begins: song lyrics become dialogue; gunfire acts as percussion and tyre screeches and fender benders become part of the musical landscape. Think Shaun of The Dead‘s rhythmical barman beating to Queen’s ‘Don’t stop Me Now’ or where Spaced’s Tyres (Michael Smiley) holds an A1 clubbing jam fair to the sounds of a pedestrian crossing. Similarly, Baby Driver doesn’t miss a beat.
Steve McQueen once obsessed about breaking the ‘film barrier’: that distance between the lens and the road that sucks the speed out of racing scenes. Wright smashes right through that barrier. On-set tales of Wright strapping himself to car bonnets whilst the cast were thrown around the interior creates scenes that stick two fingers up to The Fast and Furious franchise and would make the King of Cool ask you to pump the brakes.
Wright’s stylistic flare isn’t just restricted to the action, either. As the titular Baby, Ansel Elgort’s coffee run goes all ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ as he swings ’round lamp posts whilst lyrics to the accompanying ‘Harlem shuffle’ pop up onscreen via fly posters, shop windows and road signs. It’s all kinds of clever.
The trouble is, it all gets a little bit tired, and this is where Baby Driver stalls. Once the initial heist is done, the second act seems to lull as the effect wears off whilst we wait for that one last job. Like a friend who keeps playing you songs that are each ‘the best ever’, your attention starts to wander and the film feels flabby and overly long as a result.
The cast doesn’t help either. Yes, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is effortlessly cool and omni-Ray Ban’ed with a playlist for every occasion, but his relationship with Debora (Lily James) falls flat. James is endearing but ultimately underwritten and there’s never a sense that her and Baby are really a thing. Let alone a thing that’s worth fighting for. For that, see Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez’s Buddy and Darling. Hashtag relationship goals. Spacey is as Spacey does, but it’s down to Baby’s father figure Joe (CJ Jones) to hold the heart of the film in his hand, never more so than on the steps of the retirement home.
My former MCM John Bernthal is initially set up to be the antagonist that the film deserves, but then the first job’s done and like that, pfft…he’s gone! Jamie Foxx steps in, and while he’s the kind of villain you want to see get got, I’d have rather Bernthal’s Griff been there for the long haul, especially as it would have allowed for a satisfying bait and switch when Buddy finally steps out of the shadows. With that being said, we do get the best Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers cameo since Back to the Future so, swings and roundabouts.
Thankfully, the third act hits its stride again. Once plenty of posturing and a ham-fisted meeting with an arms dealer called The Butcher are out of the way, we’re back down to business. The climax is nothing complex and is all the more efficacious as a result: high stakes are on the line between compelling characters with a personal issue at the heart. It’s as high-octane as the start of the film suggested and it will make you think twice about parking in an NCP ever again. And after all that, it ends not with a bang but with a whimper, as over-explanation hampers the ending.
Now more than ever, Shaun of the Dead and Spaced feel like old friends: the ones who you’ve known since college, but you can no longer really remember how you actually met. Then along came Hot Fuzz. Funny, for sure, but not best mate material. Now? We’re BFFs. I’m hoping I can say the same about Baby Driver one day. But for today, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.