From Spielberg to Tarantino, from Cronenberg to Refn, it seems like every film-making auteur has a car movie in them. Influenced, no doubt, by the classics of American cinema, it’s almost as if directors enjoy making car films considerably more than audiences like watching them.
Whether or not that’s true, in this regard, Edgar Wright is no different to his peers. Having proven his skills with zombie apocalypse, buddy cop and alien invasion flicks, Baby Driver is Wright’s inevitable car movie. It follows wunderkind wheelman Baby (Ansel Elgort), a reluctant crook who can’t drive without the right music playing. Coerced into a number of heists, he’s given the chance to earn his freedom from his boss – Kevin Spacey’s Doc – by doing one last big job. Embedded in a gang of hardened criminals, all he needs to do is make it out alive. As you might imagine, things don’t go so smoothly.
Unfortunately for fans of Wright’s deconstructive movie-making, that’s about as complex as it gets. Unlike the “Cornetto Trilogy”, or Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, this is a movie that’s a straight-up homage to its influences – no less openly nerdy than his previous works, but considerably less sharp with it. Perhaps, divorced from writing partner Simon Pegg, Wright is simply more concerned with creating tone and mood than dispensing commentary or satire, and in that sense he is admittedly successful. The deft back-and-forth between music and action means it’s instantly a technical masterpiece. The set pieces are well-constructed and the cinematography is tight. But that’s not quite enough. After all, no-one ever compliments the font choice on their favourite novel. What keeps Baby Driver from reaching its potential is that as a story, it’s merely okay.
Broadly, it just isn’t deep enough. The characters are superficial, the plot is straightforward, and there’s no greater theme to hang onto when those things fail to satisfy. The movie occasionally hints at philosophical ideas regarding the nature of crime and morality, but they’re barely shown, much less explored. The film is all about its character narrative, and that narrative struggles to support the weight of expectation. Were it not for the inexhaustible charisma and talent that Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey et al bring to the screen, the supporting roles would be flatter than roadkill. Spare a thought in particular for the film’s two female characters – Lily James’s Debora and Eiza González’s Darling – who are stuck in the aggressively one-dimensional roles of ‘love interest’ and ‘someone else’s love interest’.
This combination of elements means Baby Driver is an undeniably Wright’s most mature and confident effort, but one that ultimately disappoints. Demonstrably, there’s better in him. Furthermore, his signature directorial style of quick cuts, fast pans and narrative asides has been pruned right back with more focus given to long tracking shots that allow the choreography to breathe. Gone, too, are the pop-culture references that typified his previous work. Leaving these tricks behind is arguably a necessary step in Wright’s growth, but it also robs him of his identity. You could say that the rough edges have been knocked off, but all that means is that Baby Driver is the first Edgar Wright film that feels like it could’ve been made by anyone else. It’s telling that no part of the film reaches the heights of its opening credits, where Wright’s sense of visual humour is at its most obvious.
Given the film’s premise, the soundtrack of course constitutes a major part of the viewing experience, but even that rarely elevates the scenes the way the best soundtracks do. When it works, it REALLY works – again, the opening car chase, accompanied by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”, springs to mind – but the film is almost wall-to-wall music, and it’s high in the mix to boot. At times you get dialogue on top of music on top of score and it teeters on the edge of cacophony. The brief periods of silence, seemingly intended to create a feeling of disconnection, instead act more as respite. We have to assume Wright knew what he was doing because it’s not a problem he’s had elsewhere, but it’s hard not to feel that a more selective use of music would have stopped it all blurring together.
Despite all the criticism levelled against it here, the film itself is far from a waste of time. It’s a charming enough story, considerably less cold, detached and bleak than Drive, with which it otherwise shares many similarities. The problem is that when the director is renowned for being provocative, daring and inventive, it’s all a little too… safe. In much the same way the car chase as a cinematic form is devoid of actual jeopardy (because the main character never dies mid-chase) Baby Driver is a movie on rails: the scenery is nice, there’s the feel of wind in your hair – but when it reaches its destination, you can’t help being underwhelmed that it didn’t go anywhere new.
Baby Driver is released in cinemas worldwide on 28 June 2017.