Not being familiar with the Simon and Garfunkel song, when I first heard this movie’s title I briefly entertained the notion that Wright, the auteur of the glorious Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), had made some weird family comedy about a toddler getting behind the wheel, or a guy who transports babies around. (This latter idea remains the Rock’s for the pitching.) Or maybe a Kill Bill sequel. Or, hell, a Kill Bill prequel. Baby Driver turns out to be a riff on Walter Hill’s Ryan O’Neal-starring gearhead classic, The Driver, about a brilliant, silent getaway driver fleeing from the law. (And that film plays like a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.) This is sort of the junior version of all that, I suppose.
This time, the lonesome driver is Baby (Ansel Elgort), an introverted automotive savant who knows his music as well as his cars, and uses both to hide a lot of hurt. Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a smooth, calculating crime lord who plans immaculate heists that ultimately hinge on one key element: Baby's expertise behind the wheel. The assorted goons Doc hires — crude stickup men played with grimy glee by the likes of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal — are understandably put off by our hero’s aloof, unnaturally quiet demeanor. Is there something wrong with him? Does he think he's better than them?
The dark sunglasses never come off and the earbuds never come out; Baby needs his music the way Samson needs his hair. It’s the source of his strength — his ability to stay focused and centered and on the move. (It also drowns out his tinnitus.) And if Baby keeps his distance from the other thugs, it’s because he absolutely is not one of them, and Doc recognizes that: This is just a kid who’s slowly paying back some debt to Doc in perfectly executed getaways. (The precise nature of the debt, as far as I can tell, is never explained.) When he’s not transporting sociopaths, Baby takes care of his elderly, deaf foster father, Joe (C.J. Jones), and longs quietly for Debora (Lily James), a waitress who reminds him of his deceased mother.
Wright is playing with archetypes here. Throughout, his characters deliver hilariously quotable mock-tough-guy dialogue. (“We’ve met before, right?” “I don’t know. You’re still alive, right?” “Yeah.” “Then I guess we ain’t never met.”) Baby and Debbie both long to escape — they want to be lovers on the run, tapping into a noble cinematic tradition of romantic wanderlust. (“Sometimes, all I want to do is head west on 80 in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have.”) Cars, shootouts, gangsters, doomed lovers and limitless blacktop to match the limitless menace of men — this is Edgar Wright’s fantasy of America, a land where everyone is a killer or a dreamer or a driver, and sometimes all three. A guy like David Lynch uses such archetypes to explode our myths and reveal our spiritual corruption. But hey, he’s a disillusioned Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana; UK-born Wright is the zealous outsider who longs to make the myths breathe again.
Baby Driver is an almost perfect pastiche, a thoroughly enjoyable object. But sue me, I kind of miss the losers of the Cornetto Trilogy. In the masterpieces Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, Wright blends humiliation comedy with the choreographed mayhem, finding humanity in between; when the characters start fighting zombies to the accompaniment of Queen songs, you roar with approval not just for the filmmaking but for the triumph of little people finding their rhythm. In Baby Driver, by contrast, everybody is super-cool, and I’m not sure they ever quite come to life. But it’s all so effective as a demented action spectacle that this is a minor quibble. I’ll probably see this thing ten more times.