Baby Driver, the fantastic new film from director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), is many different movies all rolled into one. It’s an action film, obviously, full of car chases and shootouts and scary looking men who mean business. It’s a comedy, like all of Wright’s films, although with its share of dramatic elements. But, the key to appreciating Baby Driver comes realizing where its heart truly lies, not with the action genre, but with the musical. Granted, there aren’t a lot of characters breaking out into song here (although the opening scene appears to be a little nod in this direction), but the way music is woven through the tapestry of the film, often syncing up with gunshots and car doors slamming, it becomes an invisible character that stands alongside the actors on screen.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver with tinnitus, acquired in a childhood car accident which killed his parents. To drown out the ringing in his ears, he has a constant stream of music playing in one of the many iPods he carries around (“different ones for different days, different moods”), whether he’s walking down the street to buy coffee or driving one of the many heists he does for criminal kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey, in the last great role we could enjoy him in before his recent fall from grace). Baby owes Doc money, but he dreams of getting out of the life and running off his with newfound love, a waitress named Deborah (Lily James). That is, until Doc coaxes him back into doing the fabled “one last heist.” Joining Baby on the job are Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eisa González), and Bats (Jamie Foxx). As expected, things go sideways and Baby is thrust forward into a rhapsody of sights, sounds, and cinematic sleight of hand towards the thrilling (if somewhat expected) climax.
The film is perfectly cast. Elgort shines as the nominal Baby Driver, bringing an effortless likability and charm to the role, as does James as his love interest. Foxx makes the most of his relatively limited screen time to bring menace and weight to a role that could have been lost in the shuffle. The standouts, however, are Spacey and Hamm: the best one liners are Spacey’s to relish, and Hamm’s natural charm takes a delightfully sinister turn for deranged in the third act. The camerawork is done by Bill Pope of The Matrix fame, and both the action sequences as well as the quieter scenes feature the same precision and visual dexterity as any moment in that film. The below-the-line elements are all top notch, with whip-tight editing and masterfully crafted sound design (the best of the year) working overtime to assist the soundtrack, expertly arranged, which features songs from a wide range of artists from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to T. Rex and Barry White. Wright, who has dabbled in action before (both satirically in Hot Fuzz and more indulgently in Scott Pilgrim), has honed his natural talent of visual comedy to razor-sharp perfection. There’s scarcely a moment out of step in the film.
Every summer since time immemorial has been saturated with big budget action spectacles, some excellent, more satisfactory, and most mind-numbingly dull. However, the award for best summer action film this year, needs to come with an asterisk denoting the first ever multi-genre winner as an action musical. The creation of a new genre? It remains to be seen. But for now, Baby Driver can be happy knowing it’s the most enjoyable action film in theaters this year.