Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Car Trouble: BABY DRIVER

Baby Driver is the action movie equivalent of an earworm. Wafting in on the summer breeze full of undeniable, unshakable energy, it is as bright, infectious, zippy, crowd-pleasing, sugary, and satisfying as the best pop songs. That it comes from writer-director Edgar Wright is no surprise. In his filmmaking, every cut counts, every aspect of the production – from design and cinematography to casting and staging and everything between – brilliantly orchestrated into one cohesive blast. By timing when and where to move from frame to frame down to the millisecond, his eye as unexpected as it is intuitive, he builds rhythms, forms jokes, reveals character, emphasizes key plot details, and sets the pace with the rigor and flare of a drum major. It’s show-off style of the most casual sort, reveling in the modulating momentum a rat-a-tat marriage of script and sensation movie magic allows. His latest film pushes his style the farthest yet. In his 2004 horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead one of the most memorable moments involves a jukebox blaring to life as the heroes attack a zombie with pool cues, each strike of their makeshift weapons keeping time with the Queen song suddenly on the soundtrack. Baby Driver is the feature-length version of that instinct, telling the story of an in-over-his-head getaway driver with special emphasis on the music in his earbuds.

Not just a great gimmick, the nonstop diegetic soundtrack serves the character. Baby (Ansel Elgort), orphaned in a car accident years ago which left him with constant lingering tinnitus, is a wunderkind driver under the thumb of a smarmy gangster (Kevin Spacy, oozing confident snappiness). His driving is like Gene Kelly’s dancing: muscular, fluid, graceful, dazzling. He makes it look easy to be so excellent. Forced to chauffeur the man’s bank-robbing teams at a moment’s notice – “They call, I go,” Baby says – he focuses narrowly on the task at hand. He blocks out the ringing in his ears using a cool playlist he keeps handy in one of his may iPod classics (technology already as nostalgic as the records and cassettes that are also key factors in the plot). This allows him not only to alleviate his ailment, but to help distance himself from the real criminals. Though he’s one of the team (the various robbers played with great personality by the likes of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, and Flea, an ensemble of scene-stealers), he views his situation as that of a frustrated goodhearted youngster. He loves driving, but hates his job. 

The boss has engaged his services through a mixture of blackmail and intimidation. Baby thinks they’ve just about completed their arrangement – the movie starts with the typical One Last Job formulation – but just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. Trying to protect his new girlfriend (Lily James) and his ailing foster father (CJ Jones) from danger, he finds he must crank up the tunes to drive or die. Scenes with his loved ones are a tender oasis against the prickly criminals he carts around and the hurtling action that erupts from them. Baby is a nice young man in over his head, and there’s a fine tension between the sense of control his driving skills affords him, and the careening lack of control in his larger situation. It helps that Wright has Elgort to surround with this high-stakes frivolity. The young Fault in our Stars actor’s face can from some angles look placid cool, and from others nothing but unformed sweetness. The soft, subtle malleability sells his intensely sympathetic character, the sublime heightened heist melodrama he’s in, and the smooth skill with which it’s all pulled off.

The rare car chase movie that’s as alive outside the action as in, it’s nothing but good fun visual flourishes and great sudden surprises from beginning to end. Wright approaches his sturdy action movie setup with the grace and skill of an expert plate-spinner. The screenplay flows with funny, syncopated patter and chatter; the plot crackles with unforced setups for payoffs that are always deeply satisfying, even (and especially) when they spin away from the expected. The characters are quickly sketched and consistently engaging, from a cast exuding not only great relish for the fun lines they get to speak, but for the tempo and style with which they swagger. For Wright has choreographed the entire film (the cuts, the words, the angles, the action, and the gestures – from a flick of a wrist to the bat of an eye) to the soundtrack. With a backbeat of only the catchiest songs – an eclectic mix of rock, R&B, hip-hop, and pop that are the sweet spot of not too obvious or too obscure – the production becomes the action film as musical. It takes the assumption both forms are story hooks on which to hang sensational set-pieces to its logical conclusion. There’s never a down moment, only crescendos and fermatas, tension and humor stretched and strung. Like the best song-and-dance, the film does the complicated – thrilling stunt driving, shootouts, and foot chases at a screwball pace – with a big darling grin on its face. It’s a great time at the movies.

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