Mad Max: The Musical.
Director: Edgar Wright
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
US Release: June 28, 2017
Edgar Wright has a pension for masterfully manipulating genres that are stale, boring, and simply shouldn’t work into modern classics that prove some of the best movies tackling whatever genre in which they reside. From Hot Fuzz, a buddy cop movie released far after the genre’s prime time for parody yet still proving a hilarious new take on old tropes, to Shaun of the Dead, which not only proved a more exciting and fantastic piece but satirized even more tired genres in zombie and slacker movies, to Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a romantic comedy action video game comic book movie starring Michael Cera that had no right whatsoever to be good but is now one of Wright’s most successful works. Such is the case with Baby Driver, a car chase action movie with a great soundtrack, ostensibly Guardians of the Galaxy but with cars instead of spaceships, starring a disillusioned youth in love trying to turn a new leaf against a big bad he once served. Despite treading this familiar path, Wright’s new movie proves utterly phenomenal, so much so that I fear I will have far too little to say simply from a lack of synonyms for supremely awesome and entirely breathtaking.
Rarely does a movie have me actively hollering, tensing up, laughing out loud, and gritting my teeth, so engaged in its action that I forget where or who I am and am subject to the same experiences as the characters I observe, but from the opening seconds of this piece, the audience is enthralled with the rhythmic precision Wright presents to us. The premise is straightforward and immediately obvious, as we open on a bank heist for which our protagonist, Baby, played with a nuance I never could have expected from Ansel Elgort after his mediocrity in The Fault in our Stars, who is working for criminal mastermind Kevin Spacey, who doesn’t so much act as he does, as he has so many times before, command attention and respect, who plays the character Doc. Baby, however, was in an accident when he was younger which both killed his parents and gave him tinnitus, a ringing he combats by constantly playing music both for himself and the audience. As it sounds, there is something off about Baby, although the film never expressly tells us what it is. Rather, Elgort, in a performance with subtlety that is impossible to be understated, acts both unsettling and frightened, off putting and intimidating yet childlike and traumatized, providing both an emotionally intense character and a blank slate for other performances, almost all of which are showstopping, to project onto throughout the film. From here we are treated to one of the best opening acts in cinematic history. From the way Baby sings along in his car to the way he moves the windshield wipers and, when the robbery has been completed, the car, to get away, Wright has captured a unique precision and rhythm, forcing the audience to both cling to the edge of their seat in exhilaration and tap their foot to the masterfully timed tunes.
The action is impeccable. From this first getaway scene, Wright shows off his tight and cohesive cuts that make it easy and fun for the audience to follow the action, a trend throughout the film that is increasingly rare in Hollywood action flicks. Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, the film’s editors, did a phenomenal job of keeping our eyes moving in tandem with the beat of the music, just as everything on the screen, from brakes screeching to gunshots, do. In this way, the movie’s soundtrack, which could easily have been a clusterfuck of recognizable tunes hoping to bank on cheap nostalgia (looking at you, Suicide Squad), transforms the film into a pseudo-musical, where everything on screen is enhanced by the beat and the recognizable music, more in line with Breaking Bad or Rick and Morty‘s use of licensed tracks.
Even after the chase scene ends, the rhythmic power continues in every shot by Wright. In a particularly impressive tracking shot, Baby walks down the street singing his song and avoiding police on his way to get coffee for the crew, and not only do his movements match the lyrics perfectly, but the environment changes to match them. From writing on the wall to offhanded lines by extras, everything works to the beat of a massively musical production. Wright even compensates for a lack of movement, as when the crew is debriefing after the heist, the twist of coffee mugs and tapping of fingers all add to the beautifully orchestrated duo of music and performances.
After the debriefing, we are introduced to the central conflict of the film. Baby doesn’t want to be in this life of crime, but, after stealing a car many years ago from Doc, he is forced to repay his debt, and is only one job away from being straight. From here, Baby goes home and introduces us to his immensely charming deaf foster father, who is weary and disapproving of his career, and we are shown how Baby records conversations to remix them into original beats…all of this, keep in mind, synching perfectly with a driving and recognizable soundtrack. We are also introduced to the mysterious diner employee, Debora, a manic pixie dream girl played as well as the old trope can be played by Lilly James, who serves as Baby’s love interest.
During the next heist, Baby runs into some real trouble when we meet Jaime Foxx’s Bats, a criminal so insane and spine chillingly evil that only Foxx could bring such vibrant life and realism to him. After a hilarious misunderstanding resulting in the new crew wearing Mike Meyers (international man of mystery) masks instead of Mike Meyers (the Halloween killer) masks during their heist, we are treated to another getaway scene, this one not going as smoothly and showing Wright’s superb ability to build tension. Baby also shows his soft side, giving the baby in the backseat of a car they steal to the mother from which they steal it and preventing Foxx from murdering their pursuer, prompting Foxx to grow weary of his allegiances.
After a particularly heinous cleanup job from Foxx’s character, Baby is set free of his position as driver, and returns home to pursue Debora. Here, however, the movie, for its first time, falls flat. Leaving the action of the first act behind and not yet at the climactic third, the second act stumbles over a loss of the incredible rhythm Wright has shown he is capable of. In addition to presenting this small collection of scenes as rather uninteresting and completely usual, this also makes Debora a less endearing character than her initial introduction, as the musical power has died down with the action, adding to a severe character flaw that turns her manic and romantic dreams into questionable shortsightedness and a bizarre devotion to Baby that impedes upon a genuine feeling in the film’s ending. Doc soon returns to remedy this however, as we get our first horrifying glimpse into what the criminals with which Baby associates are capable of and he insists Baby return to steal a collection of money orders from the post office as his big final heist. This gets in the way of the romantic fantasy Debora introduces, of herself and Baby driving off into the sunset in a car they can’t afford with a plan they don’t have…a sentiment that, despite its cheesiness, still gives me romantic chills just repeating.
Casing the joint the next day, the movie features some clunky PSVita product placement and shows us a kindhearted woman working there for whom Baby fears. Soon thereafter, the movie picks up again, and from here on does not stop, as Baby meets the third crew, featuring Bats and two of the first team we were introduced to, Jon Hamm’s Buddy and his wife, Darling, played by Eiza González, a severely underrated actress. Buddy demonstrates affection here for Baby, something few have offered him, which again prompts Bats’s scorn, as he proclaims the second you catch feelings to be the second you catch a bullet.
The team heads to a wear house to acquire arms for the next day, only for Bats to note the crates are marked as police firearms, causing him to initiate a massive firefight that, again, matches perfectly to Baby’s IPod’s backing. Baby, however, is finished with the criminals after seeing the massacre, and as he sulks while driving back, Bats insists they stop in a diner…the same one where Debora works. This begins one of the most tense scenes, as Baby desperately tries to communicate his situation to Debora and, as he leaves, slips her a note declaring that night to be the one on which they make their escape. This scene demonstrates elegantly the power of the remarkable cast, as Foxx makes even the audience fear for their lives, Hamm and González show off their characters’ duality, and Elgort, along with James, demonstrate a strong chemistry through subtle looks and unspoken connection.
When the crew returns to the hideout, the third act really kicks into high gear, as Baby attempts to sneak away to Debora in the night and is caught by Bats and Buddy, Hamm finally getting a chance to show he can compete with Foxx for convincingly horrifying insanity. Horrified of them realizing his relation to Debora and killing her, Baby tries to lie his way out of the situation, but Bats reveals he found Baby’s tape recorder and believes him to be a cop, providing fantastic payoff for the odd quirk set up earlier. When Baby reveals what he really does with the recordings, the crew ransacks his home and steals his tapes, recognizing Debora’s name on one of them and threatening her life if Baby doesn’t go through with the plan the next day.
At the post office, Baby signals to the woman he met the day before, causing the police to be suspicious, and he drives the getaway car into a truck with rebar hanging off of the back, killing Bats as it slams through the windshield. Now, Darling and Buddy are in a shootout with the police as Baby runs away from Darling and Buddy who are also after him.
What follows is the most exciting chase sequence since Mad Max: Fury Road, wherein most of the characters we have come to know die, plot points are resolved, romances end and blossom, and there are just enough down moments to grant the intense action grand effect, all to the music provided by Baby. The incredible choreography comes back for this final act, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, for the tension, performances, and action are too good to risk even one person missing after finding out what happens. It is important to state, however, that the explosive conclusion and all of the parkour, gunfights, and driving preceding it, all appear to be practical effects, as the limited cgi blends seamlessly with breathtakingly coordinated blocking and tangible lights, sound, and scenery, serving to even further entrench the audience in the fiction of the world. Furthermore, where the second act’s lack of musical coordination was jarring and disorienting, the twists that cut music out of certain parts in the third act serve to make loss and tense scenes amplified in their emotional weight.
The ending is the second and only other aspect of the movie that does not live up to the precedent set by most of the feature. Surrendering himself to the law after an epic confrontation with and escape from the many sides trying to kill him, Baby saves Debora but ends up in prison. Now, I have no problem with a downer ending, but Baby Driver doesn’t fully commit, as Debora sends him postcards in jail, we see character witnesses from throughout the film declaring his good intentions, and we see Debora waiting for him upon his release in a not-quite-real-but-maybe-it-is final shot, despite his sentence being 25 years with only the chance for parole after 5, an awkwardly convoluted possibility hindered further by the stunted development of Debora in the second act where she was demonstrated to be impulsive and little else. It’s a confusing, watered down, and rushed conclusion, which leaves the audience discontent, a devastating shame considering how high this movie’s highs are, with even the credits rocking out to the incredible soundtrack and only lasting a refreshingly few minutes.
Baby Driver is undeniably the best movie I’ve seen in 2017 so far and an absolute must see. I had downed an entire large popcorn by the end of the 1st act as I lost myself in the exceptionally pleasing adventure that sprawled out before me. From over the top action to genuinely touching romance to laugh out loud comedy, Edgar Wright assures that everything good in this movie goes above and beyond to absolutely great. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that somewhere down the production line, the people working on this film didn’t quite understand its potential, as a slight script revision could have easily fixed the ending’s pace and the second act lull. Overall, though, Baby Driver is everything you could ask for from a summer action movie, supremely better than the straightforward premise could ever suggest, and is the greatest musical to ever give The Fast and the Furious franchise a run for its car-based action’s money.