Cinema Dispatch: Baby Driver

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Baby Driver and all the images you see in this review are owned by TriStar Pictures

Directed by Edgar Wright

Summer is in full swing and they’re bringing out the big guns!  No, not Transformers surprisingly enough which is floundering at the box office.  We’re talking about this latest Edgar Wright feature that every film critic has been waiting for!  Everything about this movie looks great, from the trailers and casting all the way down to the soundtrack that brings to mind Scott Pilgrim in how it’s integrated into the narrative.  Does this manage to be yet another entry in Wright’s sterling career, or is this car chase film a huge wreck waiting to happen?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) waiting in a car and listening to his music while three bandits named Buddy, Griff, and Darling (Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza González) are robbing a bank.  Once the trio get back to the car, Baby proceeds to put The Transporter to shame by driving with as much skill and wacky collateral damage as the Blues Brothers could in their heyday; somehow managing to avoid the cops and get away scot free!  It turns out that Baby’s been doing these kind of jobs for a while now as he’s under the thumb of a local mobster named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who recognized the kid’s skills and has been putting them to good use for some time now.  Luckily for Baby, he’s just about to pay off whatever debt he owes to Doc and is ready to start his new life that will be free of crime and will hopefully involve a waitress at a local diner named Debora (Lily James) who he’s had his eye on for a while.  Of course, nothing goes as well as Baby hopes it does and his chance to get out ends up digging himself even further in doing more jobs with even more erratic and dangerous criminals such as Bats (Jamie Foxx) who has it out for Baby right from the start.  Can Baby find a way to break free whatever it is that Doc is continuing to hold over him?  Will this next heist be the one that breaks his perfect driving record?  Wait, did I just hear Handsome Boy Modeling School!?

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Sure he’s a good driver, but he’s also a radio hog!  Will you let someone else pick a song for once!?

Am I gonna be the one asshole?  Am I gonna be the one who thought this movie wasn’t one of the best of the year?  Sure, I LIKED it, but I have quite a few problems with it that are keeping me from loving it the same way that everyone else did, and I don’t think I’m simply being nit picky.  There’s no doubt that this movie is one of the most technically accomplished and stylistic films we’ll be getting all year (especially for its comparatively modest budget) which is something that is definitely being acknowledged and praised across the board, but I just could not get behind the characters, the story beats, or even the pacing at times, to truly connect with any of the characters enough to actually CARE what was happening to them.  A lot of this movie feels like a solid trailer in all the best ways; particularly in its use of editing and music, but it’s also flawed in that it feels like a whole lot of sizzle without enough depth to back it up.  I’m glad that I got to see as many amazing car chases and listen to as many awesome tunes as I did while watching this, but it was missing too much from the pieces that connected them together for me to get fully invested.

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“blah blah blah cars.  Blah blah blah money.  Blah blah blah I’ll kill you in your sleep.  Did you get all that?”     “Uh… I think so?”

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first in order to preemptively cover my ass once I get to the movie’s faults.  The set pieces, which are about half of this movie, are phenomenally executed and are precise to a degree that puts other action based movies to shame; even ones that I enjoy like Fate of the Furious which still has this one beat in terms of sheer scope, but manages to fall short in terms of detail.  There’s not a single wasted shot in the staggering amount of car chases and action beats that populate this movie which shows a dedication that very few filmmakers are able to get across once a film has gone through its complicated and lengthy process to reach the big screen.  It feels like Edgar Wright was there every single day meticulously watching over every step of the process to make sure nothing gets lost in translation along the way which definitely paid off in terms of the action set pieces.  Not only that, the music as well (which everyone has already talked about in length) is as you’d expect from such an exacting production.  A lot of the movie feels like a pseudo-musical in how often the soundtrack works in conjunction with the action on screen (something we commonly see in trailers) and it works amazingly well whenever the movie goes in that direction; whether it’s the actual chase sequences or a simple scene of Baby walking to a coffee shop while listening to one of his songs.  You can tell how much Edgar Wright relishes the chance to put these songs and shots on screen together and it’s infectious enough to almost carry you throughout the whole movie.

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It’s too bad he already used Don’t Stop Me Now in Shaun of the Dead.

The problems unfortunately start to creep in when it comes to characters and the narrative which feel a lot more slapdash when compared to the laser focus details applied to the action beats and the Mise-en-scène that Edgar Wright has painstakingly put together.  There really isn’t anyone in here doing a bad job per se (though if there is a weak link, it would have to be Lily James) as Edgar Wright’s dialogue is sharp and the actors know how to deliver their lines, but it’s honestly hard to take any of it seriously enough for me to have any real investment in what’s going on.  Baby himself is probably the closest we get to a fully realized character because of how much time we spend with him, but the movie is also oddly cagey about making him… well, what he is.  The movie goes to such painstaking detail to make sure we ALL know he’s not a bad guy even though he’s directly responsible for countless successful robberies throughout Atlanta.  Look at something like The Town which ALSO tried a bit too hard to make its main character better than the criminal aspects of his life.  It got a bit corny at the end (especially with that final shot), but for the most part it felt rather believable how he was forced into this life and how hard it is for him to get out of it while also not giving him a free pass for the horrible things that he is directly responsible for and how that lifestyle has genuinely changed him no matter how much he protests that he wants to be a good guy.  It’s just so much more ham fisted in this with characters out and out telling him that he needs to be more of a criminal and how his personal life consists of pretty much nothing else but taking care of his elderly foster dad.  The edges to this character have been so dulled that he’s kinda boring despite how amazing he is behind the wheel.

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“ZZZ…”

This is doubly true for Lily James as Deborah who came off, at least to me, a little too condescendingly written.  At least when Baby had all his edges smoothed off, they spent the time to try and justify it and they bothered to give him a few flaws.  Deborah on the other hand is about as dynamic and believable as a Barbie doll and feels like she’s only around to be a trophy for Baby to go after.  I can’t buy that this random waitress (we learn nothing else about her other than she had a sick mom at one point) is simultaneously an angel among men while also willing to go along with this obvious criminal wherever the hell his life leads him which is to some PRETTY dark places that she barely bats an eye at.  Maybe I missed it, but we don’t get ANY indication that she’s lived a life of crime or that she wants to (which would have made her at least dynamic in SOME way) which means the movie only really leaves us with TRUE LOOOOOOOOOOVE as a motivation for her to go along with him on this dangerous and potentially murderous journey.  She simply doesn’t have any realistic or believable reactions to what she’s forced to be a party of, and her role in this story suffers for it; feeling utterly perfunctory in an era where that kind of female character isn’t nearly as tolerated as it once was.

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“Wanna go on a road trip with me?”     “Well… I just met you and you’re very cagey about your past and occupation… but sure!  What could possibly go wrong!?”

Pretty much everyone else in the cast are playing to some sort of stereotype which they admittedly do a good job at but it doesn’t do much to endear us to their fate; nor does it leave a lot of room for surprises in the plot.  Really.  The calm and collected criminal mastermind is a lot more sinister than his outward appearance make him out to be.  Didn’t see that one coming.  How about the fact that the one black criminal turns out to be a loose cannon and is constantly bucking up to everyone around him?  I wonder what’s gonna happen to him.  The only other character who brings something interesting to the table is Buddy played by John Hamm who has a REALLY interesting character arc in this and is one of the reasons that the utter chaos of the third act didn’t just completely lose me as he was a fantastic anchor point that we could all focus on as things spun wildly out of control.  Speaking of which, the movie has quite a few stumbling blocks in terms of its story throughout with most of them coming to ahead in the final act.  Okay fine, I’ll buy the REALLY unbelievable coincidence at the end of the second act as it’s necessary to set up the drama in the third (they JUST SO HAPPENED to pass by this ONE place in all of Atlanta?), but there are several moments throughout the movie that left me scratching my head.  Unfortunately, I really can’t get into them without spoiling the movie, but Kevin Spacey has a momentary turn in the third act for seemingly no reason, there are a few set ups that have relatively weak payoffs later on, and the ending feels needlessly vague as if they couldn’t decide which ending they wanted and just did one that splits the difference.  For all the amazing moments throughout involving the cars, the music, and even the few scenes of gunplay, there just wasn’t enough to this story or to these characters for those aspects to truly live up to their full potential.  Instead, they feel restricted and shackled to a script that isn’t pulling its weight.

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“I’ve run out of things to say!  QUICK!!  GO TO THE SOUNDTRACK!!”

Considering how well the movie is doing with critics, I’m sure a lot of my issues with the film will be falling on deaf ears for those who wish to see it, and I certainly encourage them to.  Hell, I’m not the biggest fan of it and I’m still glad I went to the theater!  It’s probably the weakest of his films that I’ve seen (I still need to see The World’s End), but with a career like his that’s still a few notches above most films we get in any given week.  And hey!  They at least threw in one song from the Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 soundtrack, so I’ll give them a point for that!

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