Edgar Wright is a filmmaker whose oeuvre reflects his identity as a true cinephile — he’s foremost a fan. Each of his films is a tribute to a specific genre, and all manage to transcend homage. His breakout film, “Shaun of the Dead,” isn’t just a send-up of zombie movie tropes, it’s one of the best in the canon, and the same could be said for buddy cop action movie “Hot Fuzz.” Graphic novel adaptation “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” proved Wright could break new ground and innovate stylistically, but his latest film, “Baby Driver,” which he wrote and directed, is firmly in the zone of loving tribute, this time taking on the heist film.
The trailers for “Baby Driver” almost make it look like a spoof — teen dreamboat Ansel Elgort plays a stoic getaway driver named Baby, who always has to be listening to music while he drives, due to the tinnitus from tragic childhood car accident. It almost seems like a parody of “Drive,” starring an equally taciturn Ryan Gosling. But while Wright seems to start out with an idea for a parody, his love for the particular type of film — and his genuine delight in playing around with this set of generic tools — takes the concept from parody to excellent example of the form.
“Baby Driver” is a tribute to the heist film, but almost more than that; it’s a love note to classic rock and soul, with a soundtrack that’s a blend of rock, jazz, and retro R&B. Baby has developed some obsessive habits around his music. He keeps multiple iPods on deck, and the beat has to hit just right for him to tap into his virtuosic driving mojo.
Wright brings an exceptional sense of space and rhythm to the visual style of “Baby Driver.” The film opens with a suavely choreographed bank heist; gunshots cut to the beat of the song pumping in Baby’s earbuds. It’s a thrill to watch it unfold, but the slick filmmaking combined with familiar tropes precludes most spontaneity.
The wrench in Baby’s perfectly soundtracked and choreographed flow is Bats (Jamie Foxx), a psychopathic bank robber who is highly suspicious of Baby’s unique style. So while it’s fun watching Baby dance and drive around Atlanta (and Elgort gives an awe-inspiring physical performance), it’s more fun watching Baby dance and drive around Atlanta under extreme duress, and Bats provides that necessary jolt.
And yet, it still feels a bit predictable. Wright’s references are obvious, and as a viewer, you can feel a bit removed while engaging intellectually with the building of the film itself, recognizing the way certain archetypes fit together. There’s the cutesy diner waitress love interest (Lily James), the tragic childhood backstory, the family member Baby tries to protect. “Drive” is a main influence, concept-wise, with themes borrowed from “Wild At Heart,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” and “Thelma and Louise.”
Unfortunately, Baby Driver succumbs to one element of action filmmaking that could have been happily left behind. The third-act is a noisy, confusing, crash-boom-bang car crunch-fest that’s unnecessary and muddies the cool slickness of the rest of the film. “Baby Driver” demonstrates Wright’s love of heist movies, car chases, and killer tunes. It’s cute, to be sure, but is it anything more than that? Maybe it doesn’t have to be.
3 out of 4 stars
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, Kevin Spacey, CJ Jones, Sky Ferreira
Directed by Edgar Wright
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Rated R for violence and language throughout.