Some in the British press have criticised Edgar Wright for leaving behind his nation’s industry for the allure of Hollywood. And though it is lamentable that British cinema has lost one of its few mechanics of innovative, commercial films which enter popular culture and stay there, their loss is surely Hollywood’s gain.
In his latest, Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort plays Baby (real name), a getaway driver who always listens to music. He wants out, but Kevin Spacey’s crime boss has him doing job after job. That’s the set up for a film that strikes a perfect balance between thrills, comedy and character driven action. There are vast sections of Pure Cinema, where the narrative is sustained purely by its visuals. Halfway through we enter an almost Tarantinioian character piece of sustained tension which bursts, with full glory, into a finale that dives in and out of cars, with dozens of pay-offs and sharp reversals. The ensemble has great fun with the material, especially Jamie Foxx as a douchebag crook who takes against Baby.
There is also a transcendent Austin Powers reference.
Considering how much Wright has spoken about Walter Hill’s classic The Driver as a key influence on Baby Driver, the finished product is less of a direct homage than one might expect. The setting of Atlanta here adds a certain southern drawl to the flavour of the film, but it shares The Driver’s moody use of colour and a sacred reverence for car parks and traffic lights. You can see this influence on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and the entire career of Michael Mann. There is something satisfying about watching professionals excel at their job, which Baby Driver pushes. By tying the effect of music so closely with the results of his labour, Wright pushes us inside Baby’s head so we feel each beat of action as he does. There are other influences which cannot be ignored, such as the sparse technique of Boorman and Melville, but Wright’s own voice is so pronounced as to be fully his, not a mere remix artist. It follows the beats of a certain type of dirty action film, but in doing so finds its own contours and rhythm.
Given Wright’s perfectly interlocking universe, I wouldn’t be surprised if this forms the middle part of a ‘Hollywood Trilogy’ following Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Both are unconventional superheroes in love who rely upon music to navigate their world. In that earlier film, it was an 8-Bit Hipster sub-culture. Here, Baby is locked into cars and crime, his only potential for escape a Bonnie & Clyde situation. How Wright will complete his trilogy is anyone’s guess, a filmmaker whose control of style and action grows ever more sublime with each film. Action does not here just to mean ‘fighting’, but as movement through space, which is presented with the grace of ballet and the force of a Molotov cocktail.
This action is so tightly blocked and presented that it is impossible to believe that Wright shot for coverage, as one might expect on a summer tent pole. Wright is in sync with how each of his choices impact the audience. This is why he needs to be left unsupervised: he performs such a knotted balancing act that if a producer comes along and tickles him with a feather to start changing things, the entire piece falls apart, as with his ill fated effort on Ant Man. This is why the characters mention specific songs so often in the script: the soundtrack cannot then be taken away from the story. By tying each element of production together, his hand is felt on every frame, making this truly Edgar Wright’s vision.
Some will suggest that this infatuation with Baby Driver is a sugar rush, but if so then surely the high is worth the crash.