- HEIST: Ansel Elgort ("The Fault in Our Stars") is a heartthrob getaway artist in Edgar Wright's "racecar opera."
In "Baby Driver," writer/director Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz") has turned the heist movie inside-out. The jobs, as foisted onto our hero driver Baby (Ansel Elgort, in a bold graduation from his usual YA adaptations) are not the point — rather, the getaways are, and the faster his getaways, the faster he can get away from all of them. He owes a debt to greasy white-collar scumbag Kevin Spacey, and pays it off one urban rally car sequence at a time, while also pocketing sheaves of cash that stack like paperbacks under a board in his Atlanta apartment. He wants out, and can drive like a bat out of hell to make it happen.
The last getaway-driver flick this fresh and moody and music-obsessed was 2011's "Drive," in which Ryan Gosling's nameless driver, like Baby, played a taciturn and exceptionally skilled wheelman. But where "Drive" skewed sinister and slinky, "Baby Driver" goes bright and poppy and oddly upbeat. The soundtrack — and it's huge; this is one of the most musical nonmusicals you'll ever see — lives very much in the foreground. Baby suffered an accident as a youngster that keeps his ears ringing, so to drown out the tinnitus he keeps his iPod(s) cranked up. His inner monologue is mostly lyrics and beats. The persistent flickering between songs, set against quick-edit car chases and permeating even the mundane corners of Baby's life, could have come off as painfully gimmicky. In Wright's hands, it feels more like the extra-extended cut of a music video, or maybe some sort of racecar opera.
It starts in some sort of job we see from the car. Baby stays put while his accomplices — Jon Hamm and Eiza González, notably — commit a bit of the ultra-violence, then run back to the car ready to roll. Baby settles into the punk-Elvis-grunge sounds of John Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" and promptly commits a couple of minutes of fast/furious stunt driving through Atlanta that belongs in any highlight reel of badass car chases you care to assemble. Later he manages to chat up a cute waitress (Lily James of "Downton Abbey") by associating her name, Deborah, with a T. Rex song of the same name. (though we're also treated to the Beck song about another Deborah and her sister). Atmospherically, then, you've got two broad thematic elements that instantly marry to music: danger and young love. Between them, where music lives, is exhilaration. That's where driving comes in.
When you slow down a bit, you can see some familiar tropes working throughout "Baby Driver." The reluctant criminal hero, the bitter call of One Last Job, the tension of a protective hero trying to keep his privacy, knowing it's all that shields his loved ones. Give us a character who doesn't use his words much, and we'll start seeing old tropes and archetypes. Yet in the blender that is "Baby Driver," it doesn't feel like a retread. Wright lets the thrum of the action carry a plot that, true to his form, veers toward implosion more than once.
It helps that he squeezes some vintage hardboiled performances out of Spacey and Jamie Foxx as a hired thug. Then there's Elgort, doing a great deal by seeming to do very little. He's young and heart-throbby and holds together this bubblegum version of a Tarantino flick by keeping his utmost cool. It's a star turn for a kid who can wear shades and earbuds and still seem like the oldest pro on a crew of scumbags. You're going to see more of him in the near future. And you're going to see "Baby Driver" pop up on a lot of top 10 lists for 2017. It's a blast, better than billed, and like any good concept album, begs for an immediate relisten.