Thursday, June 8, 2017

Unsquare Dance: Baby Driver

Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González and Jon Hamm in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

Baby Driver sings. Its protagonist doesn’t (he’s tight-lipped, only speaking when it’s absolutely necessary), but the film hums and taps and grooves with such reckless energy that it spills out of the screen and washes over you. If Edgar Wright’s latest film – possibly his most pure and bombastic expression yet – doesn’t get your toes tapping and your heart racing, then I suspect that hot red human blood doesn’t run through your veins. Even the inhumanly criminal are still painfully, hilariously human in Baby Driver. It’s an absolute blast.

The film’s first five minutes are its elevator pitch, its mission statement, and its raison d'être all at once. Baby (Ansel Elgort) – earbuds in, sunglasses on – taps along to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” behind the wheel of his getaway car, while his colleagues Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) rob a bank across the street. Baby drums the wheel, sways and lip-syncs, and sets the windshield wipers wiping in perfect time with the track. When the moment comes and they all pile in with their ill-gotten gains, Baby’s already gunning the engine, already squealing away down the Atlanta blacktop as the song in his ears is soaring. He effortlessly shakes the cops in a jaw-dropping, CGI-free chase sequence that beautifully showcases Wright’s passion for music, his uniquely rhythmic style of editing and directing, and the way that these things come together in Baby Driver to create sequences of maximum kinetic excitement. When Baby is behind the wheel, nothing else exists. There isn’t space in your brain to think about dinner or taxes or anything real – all that matters are the beat and the roar of the engine.

Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey) because he has to. He’s got one last job to do, and then they’re square. But Baby’s mistake is thinking that getting square is the same as getting out, and when he reveals vulnerable chinks in his unflappable armour – a foster dad (CJ Jones), and a waitress named Debora (Lily James) – then the dangerous world of crime he so casually floated through suddenly becomes a lot more real. With the addition of new, heavily tattooed faces to the gang, notably a self-professed psychotic named Bats (Jamie Foxx), Baby finds himself and his loved ones in grave danger. It’s a familiar story structure that Baby Driver wears like a favourite comfy jacket made stylish again. Wright imbues his dialogue and his characters with the twisted humour and disarming fallibility that seem to have become his trademarks, finding room for pathos even in this jam-packed action-thriller vehicle. The scenes of quiet conversation move with the same driving rhythm and hit with the same crunching impact as the bullets and barricades of the film’s many action sequences.

Jon Hamm and Eiza González in Baby Driver.

And oh, those action sequences. Wright outdoes himself, topping even the most outrageous action-fanboy wet-dream set pieces from Hot Fuzz, by making each moving piece in Baby Driver an element in an ever-spinning song. Remember the part in Shaun of the Dead where the heroes whacked a zombie to the beat of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”? Imagine that, extended to the entirety of every gunfight and car chase, and then woven into the DNA of an entire film, and you’ll start to understand how Baby Driver works. The staccato pop of gunfire being intricately choreographed to “Hocus Pocus” has the effect of not only enhancing the excitement of what might otherwise be a rote sequence, but also creating a bizarre and unique connection between action and character, between character and music, between music and filmmaker, between filmmaker and audience. It feels like you and Baby and Edgar Wright are all sharing headphones, all bopping along to the same gleeful beat. It’s incredibly intoxicating filmmaking.

Of course, this level of energy is held up and carried along by the film’s spectacular cast, who – as far as I’m concerned – deliver career-best work here (which, for players like Spacey, Hamm, and Foxx, is really saying something). This isn’t a prestige drama or an Oscar-bait film – in spirit it’s more like a cult film on a major-league budget – but in a strange way, this lean and mean screenplay allows the cast to work hard to convince us that their characters are more than the rough-and-tumble gangsters (or the waifish love interests) they appear to be. When a cast like this is working hard, really chewing on dialogue like the whip-cracking repartee Wright gives them, really knuckling down into shades of history and depth that may not even exist on the page, a movie can’t help but shine. Nobody steals the show; everyone is grooving on the same wavelength. At the Q & A screening I attended, Wright confessed that the nicest thing anyone had said about the film was when his producer, upon seeing a rough cut, opined that every scene, every shot, every moment felt like it was all in the same movie. I think the lion’s share of that deceptively simple sentiment is due to the way the cast members utterly grasp the material, working in perfect harmony to put the movie before themselves.

I could write forever on the charms of Baby Driver, but none of it would do the experience justice. You have to see it for yourself. It’s a film that actually earns the critical buzzwords we love to use like visceral and sexy and badass, focused more on raising your pulse than recouping its budget. It’s effortlessly exciting, hilarious, and heartbreaking – all the things that movies want to be, but rarely are. Like Get Out, seeing it felt like seeing a tiger in a city street, like catching a glimpse of a rare and precious species: the instant classic. It represents not just the apex of Wright’s career so far, but a pure and joyful expression of why we go to the movies at all. To me, Baby Driver is what cinema is all about.

(Baby Driver opens across North America on June 28th.)

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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