Baby Driver – a review

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Ansel Elgort, ‘Baby’ of the title, doing what he does best, relate to fast cars

After a slew of films I’ve not rated, here’s one I can recommend.

Baby Driver is proving to be extremely popular, but shoot me dead – though this film is picking up plaudits wherever it goes I have to offer honest judgement and tell you it’s derivative, imitation without a heart, pastiche, yet superbly assembled, adrenalin pumping every one of its a hundred and thirteen minutes. As a piece of cinema it’s super-cool but as a consequence Arctic cold. Uninformed, callous youth will love it. All that’s missing is Ryan Gosling as the driver. This driver “coulda been a contender”.

For readers like me wondering who in tarnation is the young lead actor at its centre, he goes by the name Ansel Elgort. (Last time I saw the name Ansel it was attached to the great American photographer, Ansel Adams.) The kid wid da baby face, as they say in Noo Yoik, is from New York. He tried ballet dancing but switched to acting making his debut in an off-Broadway play before getting his break in Carrie, (2013) and managed to appear in a film a year since. Still none the wiser? Neither am I, but he equits himself well in the main role. There’s no proof he has any charisma, not yet. His role models are Marlon Brando and Paul Newman and you can see that in his immature technique. He has a mole at the side of his mouth, and a dog named Galo. Okay, let’s move on.

I was slow to see the film. Why put ‘baby’ in the title of a mainstream movie when it’s about tough criminals? That’s really misleading. And as a film about a getaway car driver we’ve seen it all before, Fast and Furious, Ray Gosling’s Drive, (2011)  and back in the day, Ryan O’Neill’s The Driver, (1978) a similar story of a smartass driver with all the skills to get his crooked colleagues out of tight spots, who is distrusted by his boss. You could argue this film is a parody of them all, particularly Walter Hill’s original version.

English writer-director Edgar Wright has come a long way since shooting the hilariously funny Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. He has some recognisable trade marks: 360 degree circles around two people talking, whip pans, crash zooms, very fast editing, and action cut to rock music – all good for an action movie. Humour tends to be off-the-cuff, dead pan, characters playing it low-key in the middle of a highly tense situation. Female characters are not quite rounded. And the endings are not satisfactory. Baby Driver has all that in spades.

A lot of sequences in the film are illogical, absurd even, especially the ludicrously over-the-top extended coda. And that’s where the film confuses. Was Wright aiming for out-and-out comedy, or got serious halfway through? (The audience was silent at one blazing end joke – I guffawed loudly to a silent auditorium.) Some things you accept – car stunts shot half-a-dozen times from different angles that defy the laws of physics and characters who have no sense of self-preservation. It’s rip-roaring style piled high.

The action is remorseless. People run amok demonstrating nil common sense. They leap full-frontal into the line of gunfire, roll over across the ground while firing guns and still hit their target, throw themselves over car bonnets (hoods) like Starsky and Hutch without denting the metal, and fish-tail down alleys in perfect time to the rhythms of cool soundtracks.

You find yourself pressing back into your seat, or if a seasoned driver, ramming your foot to the cinema floor in search of brakes when cars take ninety degree bends at 70 mph and don’t over-steer.

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Love blossoms: Lily James as Deborah almost steals the movie

Self-possessed and introverted driver Baby, (Ansel Elgort), is a petrolhead with a First Class Honours in the myths of America, crooks, cash, femme fatales and fast cars. But this getaway driver is not driven by financial greed, revenge, or indeed emulating Formula 1 racing. He’s driven by music. He uses it to hold his concentration, to drive hard and fast doing handbrake turns to the beat while he outsmarts the cops, a trick that he acquired ever since a childhood accident left him with tinnitus.

Baby works for Doc, (the always terrific and creepy Kevin Spacey), a smarter than the average master criminal who plans perfect heists. Each robbery relies on one thing, and one thing only, Baby’s ability to get the heist crew away from the scene of the crime in safety and in double quick time.

Baby is every plan’s strength and weakness, and the hit squad know it. They are uneasy about it. He never communicates with them. Is he human or an automaton? He’s cool, calm, and far too collected. Why, they ask, does he never take off his shades? And why does he listen to music all the time, hooked into his ears? Has he no sense of occasion?  They hate Baby’s aloofness. Is he brain damaged?

Bats: Is he retarded?
Doc: Retarded means slow. Is he slow?
Bats: (Recalls scary car chase) No, he ain’t slow.                                                                     Doc: Then he isn’t retarded.

The hit crew are unnerved by Baby’s apparently super cool demeanour. They’re every thug you’ve every seen in a Tarantino movie. The mixed bag of ‘professionals’ we’ve seen in so many heist movies always have one freak no one would ever invite to a party let alone a robbery with guns. They have all the quirks and traits you expect in a bunch of sociopathic criminals who are a team on the job, ready to kill each other when in relaxed mood. Relaxed means they are ultra-tense. Each gangster is played with terrific enthusiasm – Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzáles, and a completely off his face Jamie Foxx – actors enjoying themselves to the hilt.

Baby is paying back a debt to Doc by driving the getaway car but it’s not made clear what the debt is. In good Hollywood fashion he plans ‘one last heist’ and then to skedaddle with his doll. Baby lives with his elder foster father Joe, (CJ Jones) and looks after him, his father unhappy with the loot he sees stashed under the floorboards.

Baby’s main focus is Debora, (Lily James) a cute waitress in a classic art deco diner who reminds him of his deceased mother – both parents killed in a car accident. So, there’s an attempt at a back-psychology to explain Baby’s obsession with recorded music, but in reality it’s superficial stuff. The one character who keeps everything grounded is Deborah; we root for her.

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Master criminal – Kevin Spacy as ‘Doc’.

Music on digital is for Baby what nectar is to a humming bird. He can’t live without it. Plugged into his ears he skips, hops and dances down streets to the music, swings around lampposts, and sneaks his way between cars. Elgort’s abandoned dancing career is used to good effect.

Despite the heart stopping speed of scenes I found myself bored by the rehash of old plots, knowing what to expect next. People and places are too familiar to be dramatically interesting. Young audiences fresh to the genre will be delighted. The action sequences grab attention, that and Debora’s truthful expressions of love and longing.

I felt I was watching Wright’s joyful regurgitation of all his first impressions on arriving in the States, everything he’s heard about American cops and robbers, soppy lovers, and straw dogs that walk the Manhattan streets. This is his idea of pulp fiction. As for the music, pop and rock tunes are instantly identifiable, and Bill Pope’s photograph of the highest order, in particular the many tracking shots that last several minutes.

Wright’s previous films have all involved losers who win out, people who live ordinary lives, go shopping, unblock toilets, and are late for work. Baby Driver makes all the characters archetypical, mostly cool kings of crookdom. They’re too perfect, too one-dimensional.

In the end, familiarity doesn’t matter; the work is presented to us with such verve, bravura and breathless pace that you accept it as you might any populist work of art, a Jack Vettriano painting, or a piano piece by Erik Satie, for example. It has immediate attraction but it doesn’t offer more than surface depth. Still, who’s complaining?

  • Star Rating: Three stars
  • Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Lily James
  • Director: Edgar Wright
  • Screenplay: Edgar Wright
  • Cinematographer: Bill Pope
  • Music: Steven Price
  • Duration: 113 minutes
  • Rating: 15
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