If Jean-Luc Godard directed an entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, it might look a bit like Baby Driver, a film whose sheer originality of concept and wham-bam sense of formal playfulness is all but guaranteed to send it into the cult (or even mainstream) stratosphere. Taking inspiration from burning rubber cinema of the 70s and 80s – namely Walter Hill’s little-seen but much-loved The Driver – Edgar Wright’s latest takes him away from small-town Britain to the concrete jungle of Atlanta, where masked bank robberies and highway car chases co-mingle seamlessly with punk-blues and rock.
For the focus of Baby Driver is Baby, an unlikely name for a hero, but one that suits soft-faced Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) quite well. He was born with tinnitus, and drowns out the white noise with an iPod and a reliable set of white earbuds. And somewhere along the way, he figured out the best songs to play alongside a getaway drive – a skill that makes him the go-to guy for crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his regular criminal contacts, such as Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx). But when the jobs start to escalate in their violent splashback, Baby struggles to find the perfect mixtape for a way out.
It’s inspired, deeply nostalgic, sometimes breathtaking and exhilarating, and often exhausting to watch. Wright has maintained a music video style of enthusiasm throughout his career, and when it comes to actual car chases, he more than earns his stripes; his rhythm is witty and pure, whether it’s matching a gesture to a timpani flourish on the soundtrack or managing the space and level of threat to wring the maximum tension and grin-worthy relief from the scenario.
But while the sequence that kicks off the film is unequivocally fantastic – set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms, it’s the most fun you’ll have at the cinema this year – the director is then faced with the unenviable task of topping it, and building momentum towards a satisfying climax. Wright tries to engineer an emotional through-line with Baby’s budding relationship with waitress Debora (Lily James) and issues with his mother, but this comes across as twee and a little perfunctory – James isn’t given much to do except make Bambi-eyes at her beau. And the pace itself is more than a little choppy, the downtime between jobs filled with meaningless macho banter between the criminal characters, themselves never quite transcending their archetypes.
Perhaps the issue is that it’s all a bit too American. The core joke of Wright’s work is that its downtrodden British characters saw themselves as heroes in a Hollywood movie, as demonstrated by, say, Hot Fuzz’s cheerful merging of Midsomer Murders and Bad Boys II. But while the characters of Scott Pilgrim vs the World were such lovable losers that it was okay to treat them as honorary citizens, Baby Driver is just too cool for its own good, a Quentin Tarantino-esque genre subversion with insufficient verbal, structural, or emotional flourish. Still, plenty of points for effort – it’s exactly the kind of original and fun mid-budget filmmaking the world needs right now.
Baby Driver is released nationwide on 28th June 2017.
Watch the trailer for Baby Driver here: