He goes by the name of Baby. He’s a young man with the face of a boy scout and severe tinnitus ringing in his ears, the latter the result of a car accident during his childhood that also killed his parents. He listens to music all the time to drown out the noise, everything from Dave Brubeck to Isaac Hayes to Queen. He works as the wheelman for a rotating crew of bank robbers, a job he’s forced to carry out to pay off his debt to a mob boss. He uses music to create his own personalized soundtrack for every high-speed chase, driving along to the beat. He’s the best driver in the business, “Mozart in a go-kart,” a legend in the criminal underworld. But he doesn’t think of himself as a criminal—he’s just their driver. He isn’t really one of them. Is he?
Baby Driver, the fifth feature from visionary director Edgar Wright (who also wrote the screenplay), is both a continuation of his past work and unlike anything he’s ever done before. On the one hand, Baby’s habit of constantly listening to tunes gives Wright an excuse to craft a thrillingly original movie that’s like a cross between a crime thriller and a jukebox musical, full of elaborate action sequences choreographed to pop songs. On the other hand, this is basically his fifth film in a row about a man-child forced to go grow up fast when he’s confronted with a dangerous situation. That theme takes on a new urgency here—Baby (Ansel Elgort) isn’t just stuck in a state of arrested development, he’s a man completely adrift from humanity and deluding himself that he’s an innocent among criminals—yet the movie feels at times like an incredible dance remix of a song you’ve heard before.
Even if Baby Driver is a triumph of style over substance, it’s still got enough style for an entire summer’s worth of blockbusters (seriously, there’s no way to overhype how great the action scenes are, or how cool the soundtrack is). Wright’s script also deserves credit for its depiction of the criminal underworld, which is smarter and more nuanced than you’d expect for a movie that’s mostly built on the archetypes and clichés of past films. This is the rare action flick where the criminals aren’t “cool”—the crooks we meet (which include Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Bernthal) are sweaty and desperate, addicts hooked on drugs and/or adrenaline who rob banks because they can’t do anything else. Theirs is a dead-end life without the occasional moments where being an outlaw looks like a sweet deal or a middle finger to a bankrupt society (like the immortal scene in Goodfellas where Henry Hill uses his mob connections to get a prime seat at a nightclub), which makes it all the more important for Baby to escape.
Baby’s escape plan brings up the one minor flaw in the movie. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful waitress named Debora (Lily James), and asks her to go on the run with him. But while Edgar Wright is a director of many gifts, creating convincing relationships and three-dimensional female characters aren’t among them. Debora is more a symbol than a person, and it’s never clear what exactly she sees in Baby (whose social skills are, frankly, pretty minimal). Their romance could just be mutual attraction and nothing more, except that Debora agrees to start a new life with him after a few dates—and doesn’t even seem that phased when she gets dragged into the violence of his job. James is charming and does what she can with the role, but the “lovers on the run” aspect of the film ultimately falls flat. Weirdly, the most interesting relationship here is really the one between Baby and the mob boss known as Doc (Kevin Spacey), which turns out to be unexpectedly complex: Doc is by turns a father figure to Baby, a tough but fair boss, and a cruel manipulator.
Baby Driver is a tremendous exercise in style, the kind of full-on sensory experience most summer movies can only dream of achieving. It feels like the culmination of everything Edgar Wright has done so far, and will hopefully be the film that finally brings him the attention of a mass audience. But as awesome as Baby Driver is, its greatness will be diminished in retrospect if Wright’s next movie once again focuses on a pop-culture-obsessed loner dude in need of a reality check. He’s travelled down this road as far as he can go—it’s time for him to find another path.