Few directors do heart, whimsy, weirdo characters, genre mash-ups and lift-you-out-of-your-seat blasts of bliss as well as Edgar Wright. But who’d have guessed that the guy who charmed the hell out of us with Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The World’s End spent 22 years gestating a musical love story wrapped around a gritty heist thriller?
Although the adrenalized and hyper-stylized world of Baby Driver is a place best entered with as little foreknowledge as possible, think of what might happen if Wright spanked the pretense out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and delivered a full-on blast. And you can dance to this one because, like most Wright movies, it boasts an all-earworm soundtrack that includes Sam & Dave, Beck, T-Rex, Young MC, Boards of Canada, Dave Brubeck and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Ansel Elgort stars as Baby (yep, as in B-A-B-Y, baby), a getaway driver who suffered a childhood trauma that knocked his hearing so out of whack that, to smother his tinnitus, he plugs in 24/7 to eclectic tunes on his jacked earbuds. To a wall-to-wall soundtrack of his own creation, the mysterious wheelman takes care of his deaf stepfather (CJ Jones), speaks little and drives like a demon. But his movements, like the whole movie, are a series of glides, spins, swoops and sways, choreographed right down to every snap of the finger but made to look cool and improvisational. His ice-blooded boss (Kevin Spacey, keeping it in check for once) isn’t happy when his boy, hungry to end his criminal career, clicks with a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James); neither are Baby’s crew members, including hot-wired Jon Hamm (doing his best work since Mad Men), sultry and tough Eiza González, snarky Jon Bernthal and gonzo Jamie Foxx, none of them willing to let their driver exit the thug life.
The basic setup is, yeah, disappointingly simple, but CGI-free car stunts are plentiful—all scorched rubber and wild spinouts through the streets of Atlanta—and the dialogue is smart and twisty, the editing razor sharp and the performances stellar, even when Wright’s script aims for something deeper and misses. This is Elgort’s breakout, and he is everything—funny, mysterious, resourceful, supremely confident; you won’t want to take your eyes off him for fear of missing something new. He’s a star waiting to happen, a guy worth building movies around. Lily James, of Downton Abbey and Cinderella, is terrific, too, taking girlfriend role and giving it a sweet kick in the pants. Watch her warble the Carla Thomas tune “Baby” while sidling past Elgort and try to wipe that grin off your face.
Wright’s onto something great here. He’s clearly inspired by Heat, Reservoir Dogs and Point Break, but he’s also on a whole other wavelength. You don’t just leave this 112-minute movie smiling; you leaved so pumped and energized, you may just want to turn around, strap in and take the sweet ride all over again.