Sunday, July 2, 2017

Baby Driver

3.5/4

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, CJ Jones, Elza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal

Rated R for Violence and Language Throughout

"Baby Driver" is a strange mishmash of action, music and comedy.  Although the closest anyone comes to singing in this thrill ride is lip-syncing, calling this movie an "action/comedy/musical" wouldn't be that far off base.  And yet it totally works.  It's thrilling without being too serious, cheeky without being too cute, and romantic without being sappy.  It hits the sweet spot.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver for criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey).  Years ago, Baby boosted one of Doc's cars filled with a considerable amount of merchandise, and he's been working off the debt ever since.  But Baby is an artist behind the wheel, making Ryan Gosling in "Drive" look like a four-year-old playing "Grand Theft Auto V."  Unfortunately for Doc, Baby has one more heist to take care of and then he's out.  Of course, once that's done, he finds out that Doc won't let him just walk away.

This is a movie formula that's been used as long as there have been heist movies.  Or crime movies, for that matter.  But Edgar Wright, never one to play any genre conventions straight, has a ball for setting up familiar beats in the story and flouting them.  Characters rarely operate in ways that we expect and just when things look like they're going down a traditional road, Wright takes a sharp right turn. Wright knows our expectations and plays them against us.  And he does so without being gimmicky or trying too hard.  Although not as fresh or warped as "Kick-Ass," it has some of the same vibe.

The performances are on target.  Ansel Elgort doesn't have the screwy energy to pull off the more quirky aspects of his character, but he's good enough that it hardly matters.  He forges a bond between his character and the audience (with very little dialogue too...natch) and that's enough.  We care about him and want to see him survive until the end credits.  Lily James has improved her acting abilities considerably from her awful turns in the campy "Mirror Mirror" and the utterly awful "Abduction" (to be fair, she was forced to play off of Taylor Lautner, which is really all that needs to be said) and is an adorable love interest with a few surprises up her sleeve.  Their romance is simultaneously overlong and undercooked, but that's a tiny quibble.  Kevin Spacey, no stranger to playing bad guys, is in familiar territory and is able to navigate the twists in his story arc.  Jon Hamm is enjoying himself immensely as a robber.  Jamie Foxx Elza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal are all effective as robbers.

I didn't like Edgar Wright's so-called "Cornetto Trilogy," which consisted of "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End."  I didn't like them for the same reason that I didn't like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail:" they were too dry and understated.  Too British, I guess.  But I like this one.  Wright fills the movie with stylistic flourishes that punctuate the film's plot with energy and verve.  Unlike some of his British contemporaries like Guy Ritchie or Paul McGuigan, he doesn't try too hard.  In addition to having the story go in unexpected directions, he does some interesting things with the musical tracks.  For example, he has specific beats in the songs match up with the action of the characters, he uses music to compliment the action on screen and for comic effect (there's a hilarious scene where Baby proves that while he's listening to music, he can read lips), and does some interesting things with subtitles (his foster father is no longer able to speak).

Movies, especially in the action genre, have become all about overseas box office receipts, merchandising, and fan service.  Yes, I'm talking to you, Michael Bay and Marvel.  For those who crave actual thrills without turning off their brains, the choices are distressingly few, and there aren't many reasons to go to a theater.  Here's one.

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