• ‘Baby Driver’ (2017)

    An apparently unemotional criminal antihero with talents for driving and shooting, quirks of personal style, a past that is a closed book and a stable existence finds his future threatened; he pushes back in a stylised thriller that mixes black humour and violence, overlaid with a powerfully original soundtrack. Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978)? Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)? Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011)? Nope – this time it’s British writer-director Edgar Wright’s turn, with new film Baby Driver.

    Ansel Elgort plays Baby, regular driver for and in hock to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) after stealing from him. Now he helps Doc’s crews steal from others until he has paid off his debt, with his phenomenal getaway driving skills and despite his seeming detachment from what goes on around him thanks to near-permanent earbuds wired to a selection of eclectically loaded iPods that soundtrack each robbery and his daily life. When a chance encounter with diner waitress Debora (Lilly James) signals love at first sight, his future appears set – until the increasingly wayward actions of Doc and his recruits suggest another fate lies ahead.

    So far, so unoriginal, of course, but what IS original this time round is the precision with which the visuals – themselves super-fluid and assured in the key scenes – are synchronised with that music, which thanks to the care with which it is integrated into the film is convincingly diagetic so that one really feels it really is selected by Baby to match his mood rather than the director to match his. The opening bank robbery and subsequent car chase illustrate this perfectly; the vehicle work is brilliantly dynamic, superbly edited and sometimes amusing. The tune, too, is thrilling and new, to me and I’m sure to others – Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It’s a satisfying start.

    Such films usually screech to a halt as soon as the cars do, but here the scenes when Baby is off duty are handled in a similar way as the action. After the opening robbery, Baby confidently saunters through his local Atlanta streets to buy coffee for the gang, weaving in and out of pedestrians and avoiding occasional clashes as easily on foot as he does on four wheels, his progress captured by Wright’s camera in what appears to be a single shot. Beyond the music, the soundtrack in its widest sense is superbly crafted – effects and dialogue fade in and out, stop and start, are layered into the distance or brought crisply up in the mix as needed.

    Importantly the portrayal of both settings is, frankly, unrealistic, or perhaps done with heightened realism; everything is brightly lit, clean and has the slight off-kilter nature of a dream, or a fantasy. Meeting a pretty waitress in a diner can be seen as part of that, and this atmosphere is continued as each of the two main story threads continue. Thus during a chance meeting in a laundromat, Baby and Debora swap song titles whilst behind them the spinning washing machine drums are full of red, yellow or blue clothes, and in a certain order; each of Doc’s gangsters, meanwhile, is a stereotype on legs, from the brassy moll to the tattooed thug. Were it not for the way the film pans out one would not be surprised if it turned out to be a dream of Baby’s (there are flashbacks and dreams included, but those are clearly identified as such).

    In fact, both Elgort and James deliver extraordinarily naturalistic performances, quite at odds with everything else happening in the film, and the result is winning. Their relationship is lightly but convincingly drawn, their interchanges are sweet but not saccharine and they form the heart of the film in every sense.

    This, then, is a different and intriguing approach that – at this point – works well. Clearly there are echoes of other films and their makers, Tarantino most obviously, but the sheer chutzpah shown by Wright and team to put his own vision on the screen pays off.

    The problem, however, is that this energy and wit soon seems to run out of steam. The screenplay descends into tiredness, cliché delivered unthinkingly instead of knowingly and that old Hollywood saw, the repeated climax. The borrowings from other films – as varied as Sin City and Highlander – start to annoy rather than prompt a smile. Deliberate lack of realism becomes absurdity, and the viewer begins to disengage. Jamie Foxx as the unstable Bats and Jon Hamm as Buddy outstay their welcomes, and the increasing mismatch between the styles of the Baby/Debora and Baby/everyone else stories begins to grate.

    Ultimately, the film is less than two hours long yet feels painfully extended in its final third. It’s as though Wright simply could not sustain his ideas but felt equally unable to stop. It’s unfortunate, as Baby Driver has lots to offer for most of its length and – in Elgort (just 23) and James (British, surprisingly) – has secured two talents of the future.

    Great music though.


Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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