Over the last fifteen years, Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright has treated genre as a personal highway, an open space to push against the restrictions of commercial filmmaking. Sometimes these experiments succeed- Think Shaun of the Dead’s splicing of Bill Forsyth’s teatime warmth with the biting satire of a Romero zombie flick- or fail to connect, like 2011’s puppyish graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Yet, those great homages always felt a little too reverential, too in love with kitschy cliché to really defy your expectations.
That’s why Baby Driver*, a breathless jukebox joyride where music and image interlock like the mechanisms of a bespoke Rolex , could be Wright’s greatest film to date. It feels at once like a summary of his career and a thrilling dash forward; for the first time, you feel he isn’t just saluting film history, but stamping his own entries onto the canon. Each second barrels past with the confidence of a filmmaker rewriting the rules of the actioner on the fly. The adrenaline-pumping, pedal-thumping result is nothing short of astounding.
The story kicks off with an ambitious bank robbery heist in Atlanta. Steering the getaway vehicle is Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), a world-class driver who soundtracks every moment of his life in order to muffle constant tinnitus, the result of a traumatic car crash during his childhood. As such, every twitch of the camera, turn of head and dissolve is punctuated by a diegetic selection of leftfield Beck and vintage soul. The premise is expanded from an idea Wright dreamt up when he was 19, and one of the moreish pleasures of this movie- film feels like too static a word- is watching the uninhibited imagination of a teenager being channelled tthrough the eye of a veteran director. Standardised blockbuster cynicism is all but absent. Instead, there is a palpable joy for cinema’s possibilities, the light that glints off a pair of sunglasses, and the intoxicant of forward motion.
Baby belongs to a rotating line up of murderers, outlaws and goons employed by criminal ringmaster Doc (Kevin Spacey, at his sinister best). Baby dislikes his violent work and wants out, but is bound to crime by an unpaid debt to Doc and to the city by his responsibility to care for his deaf foster father. While decompressing at a diner after a successful job, he meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress who also longs for the open road. They bond over their shared love for playlisting, but Baby struggles to put his past behind him when Doc is reluctant to lose his ‘lucky charm’.
This, when put like that, sounds unbearably predictable. Wright’s talent is his ability to spin original variations on old ideas. Take the opening heist, which behaves like a miniaturised supercut of classic crime dramas ‘Heat’, ‘To Live and Die in L.A’. and ‘The Italian Job’ and yet is directed with a zeal that feels exactly up to the minute. Wright conducts these chase sequences as movements of staccato cutting and howling rubber, each swerve and collision choreographed with the exhilarating control of a Pyongyang military parade. A warehouse shooting is composed with a crisp Peckinpahish punch, at once elegant and chaotic, but we never lose the sense of geography crucial to an effective set-piece. Whenever there’s been a shocking outbreak of violence, Wright always re-orientates us by cutting to a clear wide shot. It is probably the most consistently thrilling and well-crafted action you’ll see in any film this year.
At the centre, there is a sweet relationship between Baby and Debora to rival the best of the MGM musicals. Their chemistry, skin-prickling and tender, illuminates the screen, a reminder that Wright’s tireless technique is always in service of an involving love story. Elgort and James are so good, and the tone so sure, that a confessional flirt at the laundrette somehow emerges as the romantic scene to beat in 2017. It’s a shame, then, that James isn’t given as much to do as previous Wright women like Ramona Flowers. She has such a funny and luminous screen presence that I was always waiting for her turn in the driving seat.
Still, there’s much to savour in Wright’s taut screenplay. His first solo credit as a writer, the story is crammed with angular characterisations and knowing dialogue that would be ironed out in a studio spectacular. Elgort has never been better, playing Baby as introverted yet wily hero, someone who can smoulder behind the wheel like Steve McQueen and waltz down the street with the jazzy poise of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ era Gene Kelly. He’s 23 but sometimes looks younger, especially when parted from his earbuds. Wright’s presentation of Baby’s music as a kind of spiritual G.P.S., an ally that helps him navigate life’s spiralling junctions, is a touching study of how song guides us through difficult times. This is mostly conveyed through the brilliant sound design, an Oscar-worthy achievement that deserves to be heard in the loudest theatre you can find.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast relish the material. Jon Hamm and Eizia González are both terrific as mutually deranged Bonnie & Clyde couple Buddy and Darling, while the Butcher, a tuxedoed arms dealer who describes his wares through an elaborate system of livestock metaphors, is a memorable absurdist sideshow. Best of all is Jamie Foxx, purring with hair-trigger menace as Bats, a professional killer who looks the very image of devilish cool with his scarlet jacket and laser-trimmed hairline. It’s a real star turn, theatrical yet chillingly believable. These performances are heightened, though never upstaged, by an outstanding sense of craft. Courtney Hoffman’s vibrant costumes shame the drab vest-jeans combos of the Fast and Furious gang – Darling at one point sports a jacket that appears to be woven from lacquered candyfloss, and I was surprised by just how much I needed that. Bill Pope, Wright’s regular cinematographer since ‘Scott Pilgrim’, favours saturated palettes, infusing the Atlanta skyline with the pop-art energy of a Jim Steranko comic book panel.
Baby Driver’s most significant forerunner may be the work of Richard Lester, the underappreciated tinkerer who directed the most iconic jukebox musical ever made, the 1964 Beatles vehicle ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. That film’s pioneering trick of cutting to the beat of Lennon & McCartney’s ecstatic riffs invented the grammar of music video, influencing everything from MTV to Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. Wright shares Lester’s zest for an audio-visual gag, but constantly updates the playbook, always searching for new avenues to entertain us. Watch how a set of windscreen wipers waggle in sync to the frantic piano ramblings of Blur’s ‘Intermission’** as a job goes awry, or a delightful single take of Baby shimmying down the street to the chugging blues of ‘Harlem Shuffle’. The song’s words are given literal concrete onscreen representation as graffiti, and, by some miracle, Elgort manages to glide past the lyrics exactly as they are sung.
This is inspired cinema, a rollicking and personal vision released among a fleet of smoothed-over blockbuster product. Only Wright and Co. could make each impossible frame seem as effortless as a morning coffee run. Forget the speed limit. Sprint, don’t drag, to see the summertime treat of the year.
* The title is borrowed from a Simon & Garfunkel deep cut.
**Look out for a vinyl copy of Modern Life is Rubbish nested in the background of Baby’s apartment- I call it Public Service Product Placement!