For more than a decade, Edgar Wright has risen to become one the world’s more interesting filmmakers by innovating the action-comedy genre through homage and sharp satire with films like “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End.” Now Wright returns to bring his unique spin on the action-thriller genre. His foray, Baby Driver, cruises us into the fast life of a young man with one job: Helping robbers get away from crime scenes.
While the film appears to be about many superficial things like car chases, heists, pretty girls, a supposedly cool main character, and good ol’ fashioned firefights, it also aims to speak about trauma, grief, and the necessity for authentic relationships. Although, the film’s dive into these topics sometimes backfires, the story succeeds through its non-verbal sequences.
Throughout the narrative, the majority of the characters appear generic despite the film’s intent of presenting them in a more multi-dimensional way. At the center of this effort is Baby (Ansel Elgort, “Allegiant”), a boyish-looking young man who loves to drive fast while playing classic pop-rock tunes on his outdated iPod. Again, Elgort continues to play the charismatic, too-cool-for-school lead that has defined this stage of his career.
Here, however, his personality is silent, enigmatic yet talkative when his interests peak. Unfortunately, he remains unusually monotone even if his mood calls for a carefree, whimsical flair. For whatever reason, this is a draw for Baby’s crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey, “Horrible Bosses 2”). Spacey has a mysterious influence over Baby’s ability to do good and yet Doc’s fondness for Baby causes conflict between Baby and Doc’s other key employees: Bats (Jamie Foxx, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), Buddy (Jon Hamm, “Keeping Up with the Joneses”), and Darling (Eiza González, “Jem and the Holograms”).
Normally, with a talented cast like this, one would assume the characters would exhibit dynamite chemistry together onscreen. At times they do, but for the most part they’re just slightly off. Foxx aims to play a dangerously intimidating figure, while Hamm portrays a man we’re not supposed to see when he gets angry (spoiler alert: Bruce Banner ain’t in this movie and neither is his messy green CGI-rendered hair). These masculine archetypes, along with Griff (Jon Bernthal, “The Accountant”) are so similarly natured that they lack a memorable presence. Not even Spacey is able to fully separate himself from his thinly written, smartest-man-in-the-room routine. And yet, he is still able to give the film’s best performance.
As for the film’s female leads, the one dimensional character curse seeps in here too. Darling is a supporting character that magnifies great strength, devotion and fearlessness. However, her world ends there. Even more problematic is the character of Baby’s love interest, Debora (Lily James, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”). Debora ends up as a classic “girl next door/damsel in distress,” although when we first meet her, she conveys traits of a young woman who is comfortable in her own skin and unafraid to get what she wants. So, where did she go? Like Darling, she had so much more room to grow.
Ironically, the most effective relationship Baby has is with his foster dad, Joe (CJ Jones, “Door in the Woods”). We learn that Baby can communicate in sign language since Joe is deaf. While it’s always great to see relationships we don’t see often, its novelty should not be confused with daring storytelling. If anything, this warm and vibrant relationship highlights a missed opportunity to do similar with the other characters.
Nondescript characters aside, overly argumentative and sluggishly paced scenes stall the film’s first half. And yet, Baby Driver succeeds in other areas as an action-thriller. The movie boasts quick, edgy dialogue, an appropriately kicking soundtrack and its no-frills chase sequences effectively display Wright’s strength in developing tension through smart editing. It is a skill-set that engulfs the film’s much better second half, strongly asserting mutants destroying each other and large sections of cities are not a necessity for an entertaining summer ride.
And while the film has its flaws, credit to Wright for not being afraid to strip down and try new narrative styles (while most other filmmakers are trying to replicate their past successes). Baby Driver probably isn’t the vehicle to propel Wright into new heights of mainstream acclaim (“Ant-Man” would have been had he been allowed to complete it), but it’ll certainly receive more initial fanfare than his last attempt at a radical idea, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”