The director’s latest film may be set in America, but it retains the feel of his very British Cornetto trilogy.
What does an American-set film from a director as distinctly British as Edgar Wright look like? Before this year, Wright had made one film outside of the United Kingdom, the 2010 cult favorite Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. As post-modern as his style can be, Wright hadn’t descended upon the United States before his latest, the exuberant and exhilarating Baby Driver. His most successful trio to this point, the so-called Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End), are specifically British despite American influences. So it’s easy to wonder if Baby Driver would feel like an Edgar Wright film in the same way as the Cornetto films.
Baby Driver does have a more distinctly American sensibility than Wright’s earlier films, but it’s just as packed with wit and clever detail. Take, for example, a single take over which the opening credits play as Ansel Elgort’s title character Baby goes to and from a local coffeehouse, all while listening and dancing to “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl. The joyous song-and-dance is punctuated by song lyrics appearing as graffiti in and around the buildings Baby cavorts and slides past, a sly gag that elevates the already delightful opening. It’s the kind of visual cleverness Wright has employed in the rest of his films; jokes like that, or similar gags in Hot Fuzz, when Timothy Dalton’s heavy stands in front of a portrait of himself, are a hallmark of Wright’s filmography.
Even with Elgort’s Baby not talking as much as the typical Wright protagonist, the verbal dexterity and speedy wit of his earlier films is equally present in Baby Driver. Baby suffers from tinnitus, the ringing of which he drowns out by always listening to music. But even in smaller moments — when he innocently asks one of the criminals he’s driving to a robbery why he has a tattoo reading “HAT” instead of “HATE”, the reply is “Who doesn’t like hats?” — his ability to play straight man to a bunch of violent, chattier characters is a fine highlight of the verbose script. Wright’s script, reflected in his direction, is so confident that it’s able to build clever gags out of whole cloth. The best one begins in an early scene where Baby takes care of his deaf foster father, and watches a brief snippet of Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. on TV where one of its heroes says, “Nothing is more important than our friendship.” Later, Baby parrots the line to his criminal superior (Kevin Spacey). The second time Baby tries to repeat it, at a key climactic moment, he’s caught by Spacey, a punchline made more delightful considering his connection to Pixar.
That joke, one of the very best in the film, highlights another frequent element of Wright’s earlier films that is very much on display in Baby Driver: the invocation of pop culture. Whether it’s homages to George Romero in Shaun of the Dead or direct visual references to movies like Bad Boys and Point Break in Hot Fuzz, Wright’s successfully balanced his cultural reference points without letting them overwhelm his stories. Baby Driver, leaving aside its eclectic, pulse-pounding soundtrack, doesn’t skimp on pop culture; another great joke has one robber confusing comedian Mike Myers and the character Michael Myers from Halloween. Even in tense moments, Wright’s able to lighten things up with a meta pop-culture reference: when Baby and a trio of psychotic robbers (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza Gonzalez) spend the night together before a big job, Gonzalez’s character Darling tries to emphasize how terrifying her squeeze, Buddy (Hamm), can be. Foxx’s reply is to applaud sarcastically and dub her speech Oscar-worthy. (Something Foxx would be familiar with.)
Of course, Wright’s previous work is marked by a preternatural ability to bring together disparate genres (zombies and romance, buddy comedy and cult horror, and so on), and Baby Driver is no different. In his hands, the chase sequences, especially in the final third, are electrifying and genuinely suspenseful; it’s not just that Wright filmed on location in Atlanta, but that he clearly avoided CG effects whenever possible. Doing so makes the car-based action feel even more thrilling. But the mashup, clear from the opening credits, is between heist movie and musical. Elgort doesn’t talk much here, but his character’s internal soundtrack sets him singing and dancing from the first moments. Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope, as much in the various flirtations between Baby and diner waitress Debora (Lily James), suggest a sense of fluid musicality as the camera swirls and swoons around them. Even if this isn’t a straight-up musical with original songs, Baby Driver treats its romance as well as the action set pieces as other directors would treat dance sequences or solos; even the shootouts are shot and edited to mirror the drumbeats in the songs blaring on the soundtrack.
Baby Driver may be American-made, but it only takes a few moments for writer-director Edgar Wright to show his colors, in the form of his crisp and assured style, his firm handle on cultural jokes, and always clever humor. Though none of Wright’s usual collaborators, like Simon Pegg or Nick Frost, show up in the film, it’s evident that he hasn’t sacrificed his style in jumping across the pond. Baby Driver instead suggests that while he may not work with a hundred-million-dollar budget, Wright remains the most skillful genre filmmaker working today.