Edgar Wright’s technical skills flourish while his writing flounders in his first movie in four years, a comic crime caper about the intricacies of scoring pop tunes to chase sequences. It’s the story of a tragically orphaned kid blackmailed into becoming a getaway driver by a coolly ruthless crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who makes a habit of pulling brazen heists all over Atlanta. The driver’s codename is Baby (Ansel Elgort), which earns him all sorts of odd looks as he dances around the streets with his earbuds in and a vintage iPod perpetually pumping music into his veins.
When Baby isn’t driving, he’s practicing his amateur DJ skills mixing music with conversations he records. His whole existence is aurally fueled, which allows Wright to mould the action around his own eclectic playlist. It’s a fun idea, the suggestion that music is a driving force in Baby’s adventure instead of mere background accompaniment, and Wright’s sharp, exacting style slickly showcases the core concept.
Each heist and ensuing chase is scored as much by Baby as it is by Wright and his crew, with the protagonist even going so far as to rewind a track in order to ensure it’s synced with a heist that gets temporarily delayed by a conversation. It’s during moments like these that Baby Driver rolls playfully along, grooving and grinning as Wright flaunts his ambitious awesomeness.
But less awesome are the characters performing the heists, driving the cars, and calling the shots. While Wright has assembled a quality cast including Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, each character is a personality in search of a purpose, with a line drawn so thick between innocent Baby and the actual criminals that it feels like Wright is throttling us into rooting for his hero by default.
Baby doesn’t provide many reasons to care about him or cheer for him, but his on-cue looks of shock and horror at the murderous actions of his colleagues routinely inform we viewers that he’s more us than them. He also has an adorable waitress girlfriend named Debbie (Lily James), whose purity combines with Baby’s innocence to create the polar opposite of Hamm’s greasy killer and his equally off-kilter girlfriend (Elsa Gonzalez), who of course is hinted at as an ex-stripper.
Even though Baby is facilitating much of this murder by being the team’s go-to driver, there is no gray area for these characters to wade through. They’re good or evil, with the baffling exception of Spacey’s ringleader, who has an eleventh-hour epiphany or something that Wright doesn’t even attempt to explain.
Baby’s involvement in the heists is generally excused by the referenced blackmail that has kept him shackled to this criminal underworld and the cause of the blackmail is additionally excused by a tragic backstory that Wright plays out predictably in heartstring-tugging flashbacks. All of this feels mechanically installed to ensure we don’t ever confuse Baby with the other criminals, who are all cartoonish enough that such a mistake was always going to be tough to make.
Dividing a pulpy car chase thriller into blatantly defined sections of heroes and villains is hardly a problem on its own, though. The issue here is that the characters aren’t very interesting in spite of the good actors selling what little they’re given. And in Baby’s case, the hero’s entire arc is little more than a flat road with a minor speedbump in the middle.
Wright’s heroes often don’t change much from start to finish, but that used to be the joke when he was making riotous genre satires. Here the jokes don’t land as often and the humour has nothing to do with Baby’s journey to free himself from a life of crime, which is instead treated with a misguided sense of gravitas. This is all merely a chronicle of how Baby escapes the dark world he’s been forced to inhabit and Wright treats the various steps to achieving said escape as boxes to tick on a checklist, never accounting for any sort of moral cost that could make Baby’s experience more intriguing.
The use of Debbie as a pretty pawn whose life is so meaningless that she exists only to wait around for Baby and follow him into whatever danger pops up is easily Wright’s most heinous miscalculation, especially considering that James is capable of so much more than this. In a movie with no strongly established characters, she’s sadly the worst.
All of these issues drag the movie down when the characters should be injecting energy into the entire experience. Even though his heroes rarely grow, Wright’s characters are often among his movie’s greatest assets. At least that’s the case with his Cornetto Trilogy, which was all about the wittily hilarious dynamic between stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, each playing a completely different character in the three separate-but-connected movies. Beyond those pics, Wright’s style has survived, but the actual humans he puts in motion have been considerably less engaging.
His ambitions certainly haven’t stalled, though. Baby Driver remains a thing to marvel at when the music-matching is on display and the ways in which Wright suggests that music is as key to car chases as, well, cars is a nifty bit of winking and nudging at an entire subgenre of action cinema. Between the decent pacing and the crisp editing, there is much to enjoy during Wright’s latest ride. It just feels like a missed opportunity to have the person behind the wheel be perpetually stuck in the same gear.