baby driver is Edgar Wright’s new film hitting theaters this week. I’m here to tell you it’s very, very good. Think of it as an old-fashioned analog manual transmission alternative to the CGI self-driving car crap that was the most recent Fast and furious movie, if you will.
With that out of the way, let’s unpack some more. Written and directed by the brains that gave us spread, Shaun of the Dead (and the rest of the Cornetto trilogy), and Scott pilgrim against the world, the film is a heist that focuses on the role of the breakaway driver – the titular Baby, played by Ansel Elgort. Orphaned at a young age, he learned to spice up and drive cars without any skill. But one day he stole the wrong car, one of the criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey); one with a rather valuable cargo that Baby abandoned and working robberies to pay off his debt.
Baby is an unlikely member of Doc’s constantly shifting crew of tool-wielding robbers, one of the others (including memorable roles of Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm) not exactly confident. He’s a quiet fellow, eyes hidden behind dollar store sunglasses, white Apple earbuds almost permanently attached to his ears. The reason for the latter is a case of tinnitus—the result of the same car accident that left him orphaned—and also the excuse for the film’s relentless, deep soundtrack. But despite his youthful looks and semi-detached presence in the briefings, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s no one else you’d rather have behind the wheel.
The plot is one most of us have seen before: the unwilling criminal has one last score to hit before he and his newfound love (Debora, played by Lily James) can head out and disappear into the sunset. So far so conventional. But this is an Edgar Wright joint, and fans of his work will know that the British director has a unique take on things. The chases — especially the one with a bright red 2006 Subaru WRX (the last of the good ones, IMO) — are deep-rooted, really in a way that massive blockbusters filled with post-production computer improvements can’t quite handle. It’s not really a real petrolhead movie – not like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans-but it’s one that probably deserves a place in the pantheon next to such a fare as Ronin or bullitt.
It’s a movie to listen to and watch
But if the cars alone don’t quite reach the level of Ars Technica obsession, Baby’s music habit probably does. You see, the child lives off the net; there’s no smartphone, no laptop, just lots of vinyl and a lovely old-fashioned way to make mixtapes, including a hacked-together way to scratch samples on a hacked-together scrub board. When not mixing, he spends his time drowning out the tinnitus buzz with rare groove vinyl in the company of (deaf) foster father Joseph (played by CJ Jones). But it’s his iPod habit that will stand out from the tech crowd. A flashback shows him unpacking his first iPod in happier times, and we see that the battered and broken white MP3 player is still in his possession years later. Then there are the others; an intoxicated iPod mini. A black iPod classic. There’s even one of those U2 iPods with the red scroll wheel at one point. No Zunes though.
As mentioned, the iPod’s conceit is a convenient way for Wright to provide the film with its soundtrack, which is as much a character of the film as its human actors, the cars, or the city of Atlanta. Wright has talked about how the music for the first scene—bell bottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – fascinated him in the early 1990s, with the idea that it needed a chase. But from there it takes us in all directions. The beach boys. The Commodores. T.Rex. Young MC. Simon and Garfunkel. And so on. In some ways the eclecticism on display reminds me a lot of Lock, stock and two smoking barrels, which is not bad. But unlike that movie, the music is discussed by the characters; songs that make you want to quit a job, songs that make you want to drive really fast, songs with your name in them that you want to sing on road trips. Oh, and did I mention Kid Koala provided some songs?
I won’t reveal more of the plot, but let’s just say there are car chases, gunfights, car chases of gunfights, foot chases, and punchy script with enough humor to counteract the rough stuff. There are some sweet things to fall in love with – although the film generally has little to do with the female cast – and Jon Hamm puts on a beautiful performance that only this side of landscape chewing. Just one word of warning: if you’re driving to the cinema, please don’t try to repeat anything from the movie on your way home.