“They call. I go.”
I’ll admit that writer/director Edgar Wright‘s departure from Ant-Man was met with mixed feelings on my part. On one hand I was disappointed that we’d never see what he could have done with the material—something I had anticipated for many years. On the other, however, was the realization that I’d rather only see work devoid of outside interference when his name was attached. If the rumors were true about Marvel wanting to rewrite the script he and Joe Cornish crafted to make changes they saw as ruining the integrity of their vision, then perhaps the studio didn’t deserve him. And if it freed Wright up to go back to doing mid-budget work that subverted genres and entertained the masses: even better. Artistry should never be compromised.
So I got excited when Baby Driver was announced. I knew nothing about it, tried to learn less, and anticipated another Wright gem untarnished by studio interference (give Sony credit for risking thirty-five million dollars on an original film when most shingles with its clout were doubling-down on franchises born from ubiquitous intellectual properties). I didn’t know it was an idea that had been gestating for over a decade, nor that Wright already produced an aesthetic dry run with the music video for Mint Royale‘s “Blue Song” (see if you can catch a glimpse of it and star Noel Fielding on a television at the start of the film). These were all inconsequential details overshadowed by the simple fact Wright was back in the director’s chair.
I let the reviews and buzz keep my excitement high once the trailer dropped to reveal the central conceit. It was a case of giving Wright the benefit of the doubt because I wasn’t overly invested in what appeared to be a modern-day fairy tale set in a world of high-octane, criminal exploits. The hope was that the technical wizardry would help me forget the rather tritely conventional plot at its back: Baby (Ansel Elgort) being a young man with tinnitus who’s been coerced into paying back kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) by serving as the getaway driver for his revolving door of unhinged thieves all while finding love (Lily James‘ waitress Debora) mere days before freedom from this “life” was to officially come to its inevitable close.
We’ve all seen it before and there’s not much you can really do to revamp its concept. We feel empathy for Baby, caught in a desperate situation of which he has no escape unless those pulling his strings cut them under their own volition. We allow him to “feel” remorse when the psychopaths he drives around wield violence and destruction upon innocent people for which he becomes complicit in their torture. And we grant him the tried and true backstory of a beautiful soul for a mother (Sky Ferreira) being oppressed by the type of man he refuses to become—a glimmer of hope within a nightmarish cesspool that shines through to win over Debora’s heart. He needs a reason to live and she just might be it.
Baby Driver therefore comes with an ooey gooey center of soapy melodrama with heightened clichés, reversal of fortunes, and unexpected showings of pesky responsibility. And if it were just that I’d be wondering exactly what Wright was thinking when he put words to page. While his previous films contain pretty basic plots reliant upon existing tropes with which to remold into something fresh, this one has the bait without the switch. There are no surprises story-wise; its high-concept infrastructure chugs along at an even keel to provide the action, comedy, and music a means to exist rather than the other way around. Instead of his unique style propelling the characters’ motivations, this sees characters motivated for the sole purpose of facilitating that style’s existence. There is a difference.
Luckily for Wright, he’s gone above and beyond with his sensory overload to create something even more unbelievably hip and cool than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s pop culture videogame filter. He’s ostensibly fashioned his film as a series of music videos strung together with Baby as the common anchor. We watch this character grooving to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s “Bellbottoms” while Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) wreak havoc inside a bank directly before the beat shifts to complement an adrenaline rush of a high-speed car chase. We enjoy Baby’s focused saunter down the streets of Atlanta with Bob & Earl‘s “Egyptian Reggae” playing in his ears during a continuous shot complete with expertly timed lyrics written as graffiti in the background.
Baby is given tinnitus as an excuse to always have iPod earbuds in, the music drowning out the “hum in his drum.” It allows him to be strangely appealing to Buddy and Darling—a cute little sidekick enjoying his tunes with the same level of relish as they do their cocaine. It also provides a source for animosity from Bats (Jamie Foxx), a worse criminal than the aforementioned pair with a boatload of trust and control issues alongside a penchant for picking at psychological scars to monopolize both. We revel in the movement, each curated song the literal heartbeat to what’s onscreen. The choreography is impeccable and the two-dimensional love and hate expressed by those beneath the melodies epitomizes the type of embellished scenarios music videos thrive on.
It makes for an insane ride—one that almost lets us ignore just how shallow the underlying story proves. The dialogue is extravagantly adorned with precise timing and florid word choice, Wright’s artifice worn on everyone’s sleeve straight down to the expressiveness of CJ Jones as Baby’s deaf foster father Joseph. It’s another level of style to distract us from the lack of substance, another quasi-musical propulsion system pushing us through each subsequently more dangerous sequence. Baby is shone as a fairy tale prince doing bad deeds despite good intentions while Debora serves as his princess, the prize if he can find the mettle to do even more bad in order to release this nightmare’s hold. Music drives his introverted shyness into confidence-infused overdrive so instinct can takeover.
This technical wizardry is bolstered by Wright’s comedic sensibilities (the fun of knowing background carnage occurs behind Baby’s foreground dancing, the wild idiocy of henchmen like Flea‘s Eddie or unpredictability of heavies in Hamm and Foxx, and the quick periphery roles like Brogan Hall‘s eight-year old Samm or Paul Williams‘ colorful Butcher stealing scenes). Every word, cut, and sound effect is meticulously married to the music and over-the-top emotions of each actor. It’s nearly impossible to care about anyone’s fate beyond the easy desire for this R-rated fantasy to achieve a “happily ever after,” but the simplicity inherent to such distancing lets us revel in the crew’s artistry. Baby Driver‘s candy coating is worth admission despite it proving empty enough to render the inevitable epilogue an unearned chore.
 Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) from TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER. PHOTO BY: WILSON WEBB ©2017 TriStar Pictures, Inc. and MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All Rights Reserved.
 Doc (KEVIN SPACEY) lays out the heist plan to Buddy (JON HAMM), Bats (JAMIE FOXX), Darling (EIZA GONZALEZ) and Baby in TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER. PHOTO BY: WILSON WEBB ©2017 TriStar Pictures, Inc. and MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All Rights Reserved.. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED
 Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) charms Debora (LILY JAMES) at her work in TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER. PHOTO BY: Wilson Webb © 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED