Thursday, June 29, 2017

Guest Post: Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver, Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

By Jonas Schwartz

Edgar Wright loves to blend genres. His first hit, still his masterpiece, Shawn of The Dead, sent both the zombie film and the comedy on a collision course, featuring more humor than any horror film and more carnage than any comedy. Next came Hot Fuzz, a buddy movie spoof with more gore than a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. So, with Wright taking on the heist movie, one would be daft not to expect an exorbitant body count. A thrilling adrenaline rush, Baby Driver takes the neo-noir thriller and piles on elements from '40s noir, romantic comedies, video games and even musicals.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), is an indentured servant to a gangster, Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc organizes various heists with a mixed crowd of criminals, but Baby is his good luck charm, an expert driver for getaways. Baby, who suffers from trauma after a childhood car accident, focuses his mind away from the chaos of the road as well as his pounding tinnitus, with a constant soundtrack pumping into his ears via an iPod. Trapped amongst impetuous, violent criminals, Baby's life is always one crash away from obliteration. The one thing he can't afford is attachments. He already has a deaf foster parent for whom he cares. Meeting a charming waitress (Lily James, Downton Abbey) and falling in love is one potential casualty too many. Particularly when his crime partners (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx) are a psychotic, paranoid lot.

Wright's script seems rooted in the '40s noir thrillers like Robert Siodmak's The Killers and Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, where decent men are interlocked with crime bosses and try to wiggle their way out. The action scenes, including a lengthy car chase through the city's streets, calls to mind the low-budget '70s actioners like The French Connection, the original Gone In 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point and Spielberg's first outing, Duel, where the machine becomes a supporting player with a drive of its own.

Soundtracks have long been integral to action-thrillers, no one does that better than Quentin Tarantino, but Baby Driver's soundtrack becomes the blood that flows through Baby's veins. It's his spinach that turns him into a superstar driver. But Wright goes a bit further, turning the music into musical numbers, where Baby lip syncs and daringly dances to the chosen songs which, though not original songs or even sung by the actor, ties Baby Driver gently to last year's musical hit La La Land.

In a movie filled with cutthroat action scenes, the film's stars are the cinematographer Bill Pope and editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Macliss, all of whom worked with Wright on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. While the film oozes style, the car chase scenes are the high marks. Zooming through traffic, around walls, across alleys, Baby's cars get into spaces only water could normally, all at speeds of light.

As our hero, Elgort sweats charisma. His childlike face, shit-eating grin, and focus even when others are yelling at him, create the persona of an unflappable protagonist. Foxx brings menace to Bats, the criminal with a heart of lava. As the team's Bonnie and Clyde, Hamm and the striking Eiza González, treat their crimes like love sports, and will remind the audience of the dangerously in love Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in the Tarantino penned/Tony Scott directed True Romance. Spacey brings authority to his crime organizer role. He seems to have borrowed the steel assurance of his real estate office manager John Williamson from one of his first films Glengarry Glen Ross. Like that film, he remains cool despite needing to rely on precarious colleagues. James, who was vibrant in Disney's Cinderella, is delightful soft and yet resilient as the naïve waitress who strangely never appears over-her-head despite harrowing situations.

Baby Driver will give audiences the popcorn thrills they warrant during the summer. A tight, wild ride, the film hits all the right notes.  The only disappointment is that despite complex action scenes and well-drawn characters, the film doesn't make your jaw drop.  When one walks out of Shawn of The Dead or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, they could not name a single individual who could have come up with something so dazzling and inventive. They were Edgar Wright originals. Though this film was a passion project for the creator, Baby Driver feels like it could have been conceived and filmed by other filmmakers. That uniqueness that sets apart an Edgar Wright film feels missing. Therefore, Baby Driver feels like a great film for Summer '17 but not something that will resonate 20 years later as the two earlier films will. 

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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