BABY DRIVER: an action ballet on wheels

Ansel Elgort in BABY DRIVER
Ansel Elgort in BABY DRIVER

Baby Driver is an uncommonly innovative summer action movie with the action overtly tied to the rhythm of music.  The credit goes to writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), who knows better than to weigh down his genre movies with pretension.  The beauty of Baby Driver is that it doesn’t aspire to be more than it is, but it delivers a surprising added dimension.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a professional getaway driver with preternatural driving skill.  The childhood vehicle accident that killed his parents has left Baby with tinnitus, which he covers with music from his ever-present ear buds and several pockets full of iPods.  This gimmick allows Wright to time his chase scenes (and this is a chase scene movie) to the beat of Baby’s music.  Even when Baby walks down the street, he walks musically, evoking the opening title sequence in Saturday Night Fever.

At one point, Baby loses his wheels and continues his escape on foot; his wild run turns into elegant parkour.  In an early vehicle chase, Baby creates a shell game for the cops by matching his car with two identical ones.  And Wright scores one musical chase with the 1971 song Hocus Pocus from the Dutch group Focus; you’ll find it funny – and, if you were around in the early 1970s – you’ll find it even funnier.

The story is pretty basic: Baby is working off a debt to a crime lord (Kevin Spacey), who pairs him with a differently configured set of  robbers for each heist.  Baby falls in love with Debora (Lily James – Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey) and plans to run away with her after One Last Job.  Of course, because he is partnering with a bunch of psychopaths, things don’t go well, and soon he is imperiled, along with Debora and his beloved deaf foster dad.  So there are lots of reasons for him to chase and be chased.

Wright has the perfect star in the baby faced teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort (Caleb in the Divergent/Allegiant/Insurgent franchise and the star of the teen melodrama The Fault in Our Stars).   Elgort’s mom is a ballet dancer (as is his girlfriend), and he tried on ballet before his acting career.  Elgort naturally moves like a dancer and can overtly walk, run and even drive like he’s dancing.

Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm light up the movie with their performances.  Foxx is terrifying as a murderous psychopath with a hair trigger.  Hamm’s bad guy is less flamboyant at first, but takes over the end of the movie with a relentless and lethal slow burn. Baby’s foster parent is played by CJ Jones, a deaf actor playing a deaf character.  It’s not a very textured role on the page, but Jones brings an unexpectedly deep humanity to his character.

The Mexican actress Eiza González, who has been appearing in action and vampire movies, plays one of the robbers.  Besides being beautiful and sexy, González has a magnetic presence and, in Baby Driver, she’s able to match up with Spacey, Hamm and Foxx.    She’s going to star in an upcoming James Cameron screenplay directed by Robert Rodriguez titled Alita: Battle Angel, which looks like a trashy franchise, but it just might make her a star.

Lily James is winning as a good girl with a wild side, in a much different performance than her good girl with a wild side in Downton Abbey.  The rest of the cast is good, too, down to the bit parts.  And it’s always fun to be surprised by a Paul Williams cameo.

The car stunts are first rate.  Baby Driver doesn’t claim to be a great movie, but it is a damn entertaining one and may well win an Oscar nomination for film editing.