See enough action movies, and you’re sure what you’re really seeing is the same story, with a rotating swath of car models, gruff personalities, and elaborate pyrotechnics. Going into Baby Driver, the part-action movie, part-rock opera out June 28, I knew not to expect the ordinary. I walked into the movie theater with the blind faith of a believer. I knew director Edgar Wright wouldn’t let me down.
By the first scene — a show-stopping car chase timed to “Bellbottoms” by the John Spencer Blues Explosion — I knew I was correct in thinking Baby Driver would be extraordinary. Yet as the film wore on, my smugness wore off. Baby Driver was far better than I ever could’ve expected, no matter my devotion for Wright’s work.
Ever since watching the entire Cornetto Trilogy in one fever dream of a weekend, I’ve bowed down at the altar of Edgar Wright. Before shaking up the action movie genre forever, Wright achieved acclaim with his British comedy movies: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and At World’s End (2013). While each installment of the trilogy has a disparate storyline, all three movies star Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, and contain a joke about Cornetto ice cream bars — hence the series’ name.
Story-wise, Baby Driver has nothing in common with Wright’s prior comedic work. But story isn’t the most magical element of Wright’s films. Rather, what unites these stylistically superb movies is Wright’s ability to take full advantage of the medium of film.
His comedies are so much more than people exchanging lines of dialogue, and eliciting audience laughter through language alone (see: Every other comedy made this year). As you’ll see in this clip of Shaun (Simon Pegg) coming up with a contingency plan to escape zombies in Shaun of the Dead, the comedy is found in visual and aural gags that extend the confines of dialogue.
As Shaun narrates his idea to his roommate, Ed (Nick Frost), the film plays a sped-up, jaunty version of Shaun’s plan, timed to music. Then, after Shaun revises the plan based on Ed’s suggestion, the same visual sequence repeats with minor changes. After Shaun stumbles upon the necessary ingredient for the plan — seeking refuge at the Winchester bar, not Shaun's apartment — the plan, which we're already familiar with, run through even more quickly. Through this sequence, Wright makes interesting even the dull logistical aspects necessary to carry the action forward.
With his relentlessly unique stylistic sensibility, Wright also manages to make Baby Driver's “strategy” segment interesting in the same way as it is in Shaun of the Dead. As occurs in all heist movies, the mastermind — in this case, Doc (Kevin Spacey) — stands at the blackboard sketching out each criminal’s role in a bank robbery. Baby (Ansel Elgort), the team getaway driver, sits in the back of the room listening to music. Instead of hearing Doc drone, we hear Baby’s songs. It’s only when a skeptical member of the group asks if Baby heard anything that Baby calmly regurgitates Doc’s speech in whole.
Wright could’ve let Shaun and Ed have a dialogue about their escape plan without repeating a visual sequence three times. He could’ve turned down Baby’s music so we could hear Doc’s voice. Instead, he takes every opportunity to further characterization — the segments show that Shaun is thinking frantically, and that Baby’s done this all before.
Wright refuses to let any part of his films be like anything you’ve seen before. Which is what brings us to the most important element of Baby Driver: its 30-track, eclectic, electric soundtrack.
Wright’s been known to use music in his films, most notably in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in which two bands go head-to-head using monsters created by their music. In Baby Driver, though, Wright uses music on a whole ‘nother level. Much like each scene in Guardians of the Galaxy is full of Peter Quill’s obscure 1970s beats, each scene of Baby Driver is bursting with Baby’s playlists, channeled through a series of iPod classics.
Afflicted with a hearing condition called tinnitus, Baby constantly listens to music to drown out the humming in his ear. Since the movie remains firmly in Baby's perspective — right down to the song choice — the rhythm of each scene in Baby Driver becomes downright exhilarating. Almost every drop, beat, and song chord is pegged to a character’s action. When Baby walks to get coffee, subtle graffiti of the song lyrics appear. When he takes out an ear bud, the music gets softer. Entire car chases are choreographed to soul songs.
This intertwining of action and music is nothing new for Wright fanatics like me. Just like in Baby Driver, when Baby saves the Queen song “Brighton Park” for his greatest getaway stunt, Shaun and his friends fight off a zombie in time to “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen in Shaun of the Dead. Each of Shaun’s whacks comes in time with Freddy Mercury saying, “I’m going to woah, woah, woah, explode.” Each whack is a wink at the audience, as if to say: This isn't a zombie movie you've ever seen before.
Shaun of the Dead, then, doesn’t try to be a realistic portrayal of two men fighting against a zombie apocalypse, with natural cuts between scenes and true-to-life dialogue. Shaun of the Dead is a movie, and so it can be more than an objective portrayal of reality — it can be a masterpiece of perspective, bursting with Queen and imaginative strategy sequences.
In a similar way, by setting Baby Driver to the soundtrack in Baby's head, the film transcends the action genre and becomes a triumph of personality. The audience intimately understands Baby's high-octane, exciting, electric life experience.
For me, Wright’s films affirm the power of movie-making. Each of Wright's choices is a deliberate step in the direction of originality and excitement. After seeing Baby Driver, every other action movie — no matter the high production value and star power — will just seem lazy.
Baby Driver comes to theaters on June 28, 2017.
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