Tuesday, June 27, 2017
While I was tempted at one point to suggest that the hyperbole around this film was a bit over the top, I got closer to the end of the film and realized that I was wrong. This movie may not be able to be oversold to the audience that it is made for. Baby Driver hits the notes, plays a nice melody, and has a crescendo that will build and satisfy like the final movement of a symphony. All these music references are relevant because the song score for this movie is an integral character and you need to be able to grove to it to appreciate the way the film is put together.
In fairness to all of you, I will say upfront that I am an Edgar Wright fan. His off kilter story development and flashy cinematic style is strong enough to make a mundane story work, but it usually does so within the constraints of the universe that he has created. People who don't like "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" are put off by how excessive the imagination seems to be. That film however is a comic book story that is designed to flaunt convention and dazzle us with flash. "Baby Driver" is full of flash, but not the kind of cinematic magic that you see in every other action film these days. There are not bullets tossed in the air and then magically landed into the chamber of a gun as it is twirlling in slow motion through the air. Lots of movies will have those moments (in fact I saw that very thing in the trailer for "The Dark Tower" which played before this film). The synchronized cinematic moments have to do with the soundtrack and the pop songs that populate it. The music matches the driving, shooting and running action on the screen. Yet when Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort, drives a car or runs across the screen, if is not obviously digitally enhanced. The moves look real.
The story is not new. There are standard gangster tropes throughout the film. The crews have nicknames, the main character is involved against his will, the brains behind the plots are ruthless and there are innocents that are used as leverage against our hero. Yet for every trite moment, there is a variation or twist that makes the story pay off for the character. An eight year old is used for cover in the process of casing a job, and the kid does a better job than the criminal. When there is a car chase, the cars really get damaged and the criminals shook up. The innocent romantic interest is tougher than we expect her to be, and the big boss turns out to have more empathy than you would have imagined given the stereotype that is set up. There is a seemingly indestructible bad guy who keeps going like the energizer bunny, but he is a character that is motivated by romantic revenge not simply the story requirements.
Except for the style of filming and the ability to use camera angles and editing tools so very smoothly, this feels like a 1970s heist picture. Everyone knows that something will have to go wrong, the interesting things in the story are what things go wrong and how they play out. It's as if this film is the grandchild of "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" crossed with "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3". The bad guys make few mistakes but when they do, a double cross or a shift in loyalty is coming. Jamie Foxx and John Hamm are effectively grim and disturbed as members oif the violent crew of criminals. Eiza González is perhaps the most blood thirsty of the gang, so there is a feminist moment for you. Lily James as Deborah, Baby's love interest kept reminding me of one of the girls from the original "Twin Peaks". Maybe because she is a waitress (trope #243), she just seemed a lot like Shelly Johnson. Baby is over his head in the violence department, but he is never afraid for himself. He is smart, but clearly not as smart as Doc, the mastermind played by Kevin Spacey, in a role he feels like was tailored for him. He has played enough bad guys that this part is hardly a challenge but it still feels natural.
The practical car stunts and gritty character moments are the things that make this film enjoyable for an old timer like me. I only knew half of the songs that were used in the film, but all of them felt right for the moment and the fact that they are not as well worn as the songs used in a lot of other films, is a plus from my point of view. There were a few moments in the middle of the film that are not action heavy and I started to wonder if the film was moving off track, but it was just a counter tempo and a character theme and we get right back to the melody after those brief solos. "Baby Driver" is definitely gritty and stylish. It is not a garish shoot-em up, but rather a fast paced heist movie with a strong 70s feel. Just the thing to help rescue the movies from the summer doldrums of films like the "Transformers" sequel or "The Mummy". Be sure to buy the song soundtrack, but make sure you get it on vinyl.