'Baby Driver' film review: Stylish, slick veneer on a mediocre flick
Strip away the stylish veneer and impressive - if gimmicky - choreography tricks from the unconventional heist flick "Baby Driver" (opening in theaters nationwide June 28) and all that's left is a generally unsatisfying romantic drama sprinkled with some cool driving action sequences.
In short: Talented driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) reluctantly works for criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) as a daring getaway driver forced to rob banks alongside sociopaths (Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal). But when Baby meets diner waitress Debora (Lily James), he aims to get out of the criminal game for good.
Make no mistake, writer-director Edgar Wright has crafted an innovative and well-executed action-heist ... musical. And it's not even his first offbeat musical - "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" was, for all intents and purposes, a musical - it simply swapped in highly-stylized fight sequences where the songs would usually be. In the case of "Baby Driver," Wright uses semi-automatic gunfire and high-revving car chase sequences tightly choreographed to a high energy, kinetic soundtrack.
To that end, the car chases and shoot outs are impressive and pretty cool - almost as cool as the colorful cast of characters. From the femme fatale (González), his fatherly/intimidating boss (Spacey), the tightly wound career criminal (Bernthal) to the trigger-happy psychopath (Foxx), Baby is surrounded on all sides by a dangerous crew of criminals. Wright has crafted an entertaining, charismatic and always dangerous group of associates that Baby is forced to work with. They are charming, cool and ready to kill everyone in the room.
"Baby Driver" deserves credit for pulling off its ambitious and audacious gimmick - where gunfire and stunts are performed in perfect timing with whatever song Baby is listening to at the moment. That said, this works with varying success - and someone who didn't know the action was choreographed to the underlying music might not notice it all the time. So painstakingly blocked and timed stunts sometimes look like chaotic/random sound and fury.
And the film goes so far out of its way to present "cool" car chases and "cool" characters that "Baby Driver" isn't so much actually/naturally "cool" as it is slightly affected and forced. Is the audience to believe that Baby happens to pick just the perfect song for any occasion, be it a bloody shootout or a getaway? Of course Baby - while driving a bright red car while escaping the police - would find two cars, the exact same bright red, driving side-by-side - thus helping him getaway. And of course Baby's small tape recorder - which has no significant, dramatic reason for existing - falls into the wrong hands at exactly the wrong moment. "Baby Driver" is an annoying chain of deus ex machina plot devices that shove the story forward - a problem even more annoying when the underlying story is not that satisfying.
Baby's character arc simple: he no longer wants to work for a crime boss and he wants to start a relationship with Debora. OK, to start off: Debora is not much of a character. She's sweet and kind ... and that's about it. To her credit, Lily James succeeds in making the audience fall in love with her - but that seems to be her only function. The film doesn't present a convincing reason why Debora would be so smitten with the soft-spoken protagonist of few words. She's a little more than a love interest, which is to say she is merely a plot device/motivator. Baby himself is a rather flat character - he's focused while behind the wheel, but he's not exactly oozing charisma. The film attempts to inject some subplot involving his parent's troubled relationship - but it doesn't add much to the story. It could have been surgically removed from the movie and nobody would have noticed.
For contrast, consider the 2011 crime-drama "Drive" starring Ryan Gosling. The protagonist is a man of almost no words - but that film beautifully shows - visually and through a nuanced performance - how his love interest and her son affect him. The threat of anyone hurting them fuels his violent actions because he is motivated by something profoundly at his core. "Baby Driver" gives its protagonist the bare minimum to work with in terms of motivation. Elgort is a serviceable leading man, but Wright's story just doesn't give him much to work with.
"Baby Driver" is really the best case scenario for a film that prioritizes style over substance. It's undeniably entertaining and the fact that it's so well executed is itself quite impressive. It earns degree-of-difficulty points just for the audacity of creating an innovative action-musical - which barely makes up for its fundamentally weak plot infrastructure.
Final verdict: "Baby Driver" is a mediocre romance-crime drama dressed up to look like a much more chic and slick movie than it actually is. But in not developing or building an elementally intriguing protagonist and underlying story for him, all the choreography and great one-liners are just a cool façade slapped on an entertaining crime flick.
"Baby Driver" opens in theaters nationwide June 28. This musical-heist thriller has a running time of 113 minutes and is rated R for violence and language throughout.