Music has always been such an important part of Edgar Wright’s work, from the pop culture tributes of Spaced to the carefully orchestrated sequences of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. So it was inevitable that he would eventually build an entire heist film around an exquisite mix-tape of grooves. Yet even with the ferociously precise pre-credits chase sequence set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, BABY DRIVER never consistently sticks its own stylistic flourishes.
Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young and skilled getaway driver, is perpetually attached to his earbuds thanks to a childhood accident that left him with permanent tinnitus. Timing his high-speed crimes and his lifestyle to the beat of his ubiquitous iPod, Baby’s debt to mob-boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) keeps him on the hook for “one last job.” Yet with the volatile Bats (Jamie Foxx) and violent lovers Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) in the crew, his smooth ride to freedom may still be a few tracks away.
In opening title sequence, Baby dances around an Atlanta street filled with signs that appear to anticipate the music, a bit of magical realism that steps straight out of a Michel Gondry music video. Coupled with the kinetic driving scene that preceded it, Wright immediately carves out a stylistic road map for his film. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t stick with it for long. Indeed, the perpetual soundtrack of around 30 tracks feels like the world’s longest promotion for a film that is yet to start.
With tips of the hat to its dramatic forebears, it’s clear that Wright’s cinematic playlist is still as deep as his musical one. Nevertheless, with a script that regularly falls back on narrative tropes that span the entire heist sub-genre, the film takes a darker turn thanks to Foxx’s actions in the second act. It’s here that Wright abandons his own style, opting for something a bit more traditional and safe, making what came before a somewhat hollow experience.
Emotional depth is superficially added through the inclusion of love interest Debora (Lily James), an ultimately perfunctory 1950s waitress archetype, seemingly included to add some retro flavour to various black and white fantasy sequences. Baby’s deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) is used purely as a prop when Baby’s cool facade needs cracking just enough for the audience to care about his fate.
Wright builds to a climactic parking lot battle, a chaotic mix of sound, fury, and close-quartered crashes, all to the tune of Queen’s “Brighton Rock.” It might be a tongue-in-cheek callback to the “Don’t Stop Me Now” moment in Shaun of the Dead, but the music itself is drowned out by the action. The real shame is that Wright set an early high-water mark for himself, but seems to lose control of the wheel somewhere along the way, frequently turning a hot ride into a bit of a hot mess.