** (out of 4)
Edgar Wright’s new action flick, Baby Driver, is the latest movie (see Hell or High Water, Rogue One, and Okja for other recent ones) to feature a mistreated individual as its main character. Unlike the characters in the aforementioned three examples, however, the injustice that Baby Driver’s protagonist “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) endures doesn’t come from an overpowering system but the lack of any meaningful adult figures in his life. The movie’s central conflict, after all, arises from the fact that Baby is continually coerced by a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey) into working as a heist getaway driver. The various criminals Baby escorts to safety (Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, among others) on these drives, moreover, consistently treat him with a mixture of disdain and indifference. And then you have to remember that he lost his parents in a car accident as a child.
In a sense, Baby is the epitome of helplessness: a loner who’s alternately exploited and neglected by people older than he. Add the fact that he’s always on his iPod – in a testament to the intensity of Baby’s musicophilia, Wright choreographs every getaway drive to whatever music Baby is listening to in the moment – and you’ve got a character who could easily speak for an entire generation of tech-savvy, socially-alienated youth. Unfortunately, however, Wright’s attempt at capturing the millennial zeitgeist ends up flailing because he tries too hard to be cool. Whether it’s the camerawork (a long take depicting a walk to Starbucks, 360-degree shots where the camera prowls around two characters), the aforementioned chase-song choreography, or the stunts (see the trailer’s 180-degree turns), you’re always conscious of how everything on screen is seeking to impress you. Wright’s direction is defined by an artificial, look-at-me ostentatiousness that usually manifests itself in the editing as hyperactivity: the speed at which images flash past you during the many action scenes certainly keeps you on edge, but it also frequently leaves you needlessly confused about who’s doing what where.
Even as a basic story, moreover, Baby Driver eventually proves lacking. The clichés it resorts to – the passive and unconditionally loving girlfriend, the villain who just won’t die, the kingpin with all the blunt one-liners – annoy. The way the characters abruptly, inexplicably shift in personality – supposedly callous Doc has a convenient change of heart towards the conclusion, Hamm’s supposedly friendly character eventually turns sadistic – confounds. And the limited roles of the female characters – you suspect their audition requirements were only “Must speak English and be good-looking” – frustrate. There’s a point in the movie when Doc notes to Baby that “I don’t think I need to give you the speech about what would happen if you say no, how I could break your legs and kill everyone you love, because you already know that, don’t you?” In another movie, the moment would serve as a cheeky inversion of a common action-movie trope. But in light of just how much Wright’s script actually relies on similar clichés, the line ends up being depressingly ironic.
On the whole, Baby Driver leaves you torn. At its best moments, it almost succeeds in providing both good entertainment and a meaningful statement on millennial estrangement. At its worst, however, it’s a compilation of everything an action film ought not to have: nonsensical editing, flashy cinematography, somewhat gimmicky choreography, clichés ad nauseum, and characters who conveniently change to serve the plot. Odds are you’ll enjoy yourself for the two hours the movie runs. But afterwards, you’ll probably find yourself both puzzling over Baby’s mysteriously high Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic scores and lamenting the story’s wasted potential. In the end, when it comes to summer escapes, people deserve better than what they get here.
Baby Driver (2017)
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González
Running Time: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for violence and language throughout.”
Produced by: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Written and Directed by: Edgar Wright