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Review: Baby Driver is all throttle no drag

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Very few directors can orchestrate an opening scene like Edgar Wright. Baby Driver starts with a heist, a heist timed to music. Such editorial precision creates the kind of start that cinematic dreams are made of. In fact, the first fifteen minutes of Baby Driver showcase the pinnacle of Wright’s talent meeting a good budget. I was practically jumping out of my seat with joy.

And then there’s its star, Ansel Elgort. On screen for virtually all of the film, the titular Baby is the film’s heart, given the tough job of having to show feelings through close-ups, behind sunglasses and listening to music. Not easy. But Baby isn’t a talker so needs must, and it helps that he’s James-Dean beautiful. These are the central conceits of Baby Driver, a handsome, soulful lead taking us through an epic plot intricately set to a rock opera.

Baby is a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), driving with different crews each week to rob local banks. He is an amazing driver, and more than that, a drop of purity in a pool of underworld excrement just after the money. Frequently told by foster dad Joe ( CJ Jones – hey wikipedia eds why not include him in the cast list, he’s very important!) that he’s too good for this world, Baby has to carry out ‘one last job’  when he meets love interest Debora (Lily James).  And so it goes, chauffeuring hoodlums, tapping out his life choices to the rhythm of his ipod choices, trying to forget his past. Baby Driver is Baby’s story.

And here’s where Baby Driver differs. Baby’s real costar is the soundtrack. Like Guardians of the Galaxy and Tarantino’s entire canon, Wright harnesses the moods created and vicious beats to play out each scene as a separate opus. This subtle and seemingly effortless choreography calls to mind West Side Story but, all credit to him, Baby Driver is Wright’s original work (with shout-outs to composer Steven Price and editors Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss). Acknowledging the intricacy of plotting each step, cough and moment to music makes watching Baby Driver even more enjoyable, especially as it completely transforms the walk to get office coffee (and the title is not just a  headline-grabber, it’s a little ditty by Simon & Garfunkel). I’d be interested to know how many takes it took to film each scene.

Praise also to Wright for revealing plot detail as and when it’s needed. He doesn’t hide behind silly build-up, which often leads to disappointment. Writer Wright and Director Wright work in perfect syncopation.

Now for the bad news. Baby Driver couldn’t care less about The Bechdel Test, it’s so preoccupied with creating its world that it forgets that women are more than furniture, and Eiza Gonzalez (Darling) is much, much more than a gorgeous body who knows how to use an uzi. Likewise, Debora is a sweet, wholesome character of only two dimensions. Back story is not something Wright seems to care about in the pursuit of sending Baby forward. Ansel Elgort may have taken my breath away, but lack of depth is not something associated with Spacey, Jamie Foxx (Bats) or Jon Hamm, so the fault must be in the writing. And I am left with a hundred questions: Where did Doc came from? What happened to Debora’s family and why is Bats such a loon? Wright wants the viewer to live in the moment, but that’s harder to do when the characters are used as pieces moving around a musical chess board.

And as I said at the start of this review, Baby Driver starts big and continues big, but as it comes to its conclusion, Wright starts to lose direction. For every Mad Max: Fury Road (a masterpiece in exhausting the audience by going even bigger in the finale) there are a ton of (dare I say it) movies like The World’s End that limp haphazardly to their end. I love Wright, I really do, but I’m not sure he knows how to finish his own films. Baby Driver strives for a punchy, adrenaline-soaked climax and I would have been satisfied with something half as long with half as much mindless violence (although the Queen song Brighton Rock absolutely roars to life in these latter scenes!). Perhaps the ending is because Wright has one eye on making a Magnum trilogy….? If he follows this up with a sequel starring Gal Gadot and Susan Sarandon pursued by gangland boss Jessica Chastain set to a combination of 80s poodle rock and trance, all will be forgiven. I even have a title: Lady Driver (there’s a song by Prince called Lady Cab Driver which might work).

These complaints aside, I cannot wait to see Baby Driver again – Wright has made a future classic, a work of passion that’s also a feat of composition. And it’s so much fun.

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