WORDS: Patrick Kolan
Let’s get the necessary Edgar Wright preamble out of the way: I love his shit – but I’m an apologist to the Kevin Smith-degree. Yes, Spaced is one of my favourite shows of all-time. Yes, I imported Shaun of the Dead from the UK because it wasn’t getting a local release within a reasonable timeframe. Yes, Hot Fuzz is a work of action-comedy genius. I interviewed him on that press tour – and took this snappy photo of him:
Time trundled on; Scott Pilgrim was really good – but then, it was an adaptation of the superior original. The World’s End left me craving a lead character who wasn’t an asshead. Ant-Man’s best moments were courtesy of Wright, sure, but stymied by Marvel itself. It was so-so.
Point is, he has more hits than misses, but I’m a wankingly-big fan and my opinions are admittedly compromised now. But even then, Wright has been trending downhill a little over the last ten years – and that’s because he has been, I’m right, and hey – prove me wrong.
All that changes now. It delights me to report that Baby Driver is a monumental fucking triumph. This is the best action movie of 2017 and the best thing Wright has done to date.
So accomplished is Wright’s take on the driver-action sub-genre, it just about defines it. Or underlines it, maybe: hard vehicular action, stoic but sympathetic anti-hero, a thumping soundtrack to tie the whip-pans and long-takes together. But then, like a car pulling the handbrake, Baby Driver hits a hard-right and takes you on a (gasp!) emotional ride too, plucking away at that nubbin in your brain that wants some heart and logic and repercussion for all the action.
What could have been a sketch of a plot turns into something more rewarding and surprising: the titular Baby (a perfect performance by Ansel Elgort – truly) is at the mercy of crime boss, Doc (when Kevin Spacey signs off on your script, you did something very right), running Doc’s missions to clear a debt and eventually escape The Life. The kid wheelman (wheelkid?) falls for Deborah (Lily James, who has plenty of impact in her role) and things get messy on the road to freedom.
It’s in pushing beyond this simple set-up that Edgar Wright shows just how far he’s come as a writer, director, thoughtful editor and, critically, film fan. He just knows this stuff. This, like most of his past work, nods generously to his love of the craft – littering his story with references as far afield as Pixar hits and show tunes. When it comes to his lens technique, he frames up like each shot has been noodling around in his skull for years, just waiting to be captured. His edits remain about the best in the industry. From the opening moments, his cuts are razor sharp. He makes undoubtedly complex takes look effortless – clever, but not self-consciously so. It must be hard to reinvent racing action, make it fresh and surprising – and yet here we are.
So too the gritty American street crime caper. It’s been done and done again – from the Fast/Furious films on one end to something like Bullitt at the other. And yet, once again Wright pulls it off. I guess sometimes it takes the eyes of an expat to view Americana clearly, cleanly. Set in Atlanta, cement and spaghetti highways have rarely looked more interesting. He matches his visual flair with a soundscape that spans a range of genres and tempos, graciously staying mostly away from well-worn hits.
Baby bops down the street, only partially aware of his surroundings, trademark buds in his ears, while lyrics to the soundtrack wiz past, stenciled onto walls, or worked into signs and banners around him. Deborah enters frame, a subtle love heart aligning perfectly above her off in the background. Later, bullets and explosions become a drum machine backing to brutal and perfectly executed show-downs. Ideas toyed with in Shaun and Fuzz are delivered with the full force of years of experience and experimentation here. This is Wright’s joy of filmcraft in full effect and, god, we are better for it.
Throughout the screening, I kept thinking about how this stacks up against a Tarantino caper like Django Unchained (which shares lead star Jamie Foxx), or even something more akin to Death Proof, itself a tribute to the car-action genre. This smokes Death Proof; leaves it in the dust. It goes match-for-match against Tarantino’s best direction, evoking priceless performances from Elgort, James and a support cast of heavies like Spacey and Jon Hamm.
I often complain about action films that don’t challenge their audiences – or pander to them (coughAlienCovenantcough). Baby Driver is the proof-positive that you can pay homage but still be inventive. This is a film that, in the hands of Bruckheimer or Bay or even new-era popular cinema darlings like Blommkamp and Abrams, would not have succeeded. Wright has the technical ability and written credibility to deliver his creative vision, uncompromised, rarely excessive and absolutely entertaining to the last moments.