I'm not sure I ever expected to use the words "perfectly cast" and "Ansel Elgort" in the same sentence, but such is the case in writer/director Edgar Wright's absolutely delightful action thriller Baby Driver, early summer 2017's big winner in the action thriller department with trademark moves that only Wright makes and only Wright could manage to pull off in his own special way. It's not often these days that I'm entertained by an action thriller as much as I found myself entertained by Baby Driver, an incredibly stylish yet surprisingly substantial motion picture where the emphasis is, indeed, on motion.
Elgort plays Baby, the wheelman for a big time con man, who goes by Doc (Kevin Spacey), and who manages to make moves in a car that bring to mind those old awesome car chase flicks of the 70's and 80's like White Lightning, The French Connection and even, yeah, Eat My Dust. These aren't scenes like something out of the Furious films because these are scenes that look and feel both fantastic and completely and utterly believable. Baby Driver has ridiculous style, yet that ridiculous style is grounded in some of the most authentic, badass action sequences that we've seen in quite awhile.
Elgort's biggest claim to fame to date has likely been his perfectly fine but not particularly memorable turn in The Fault in Our Stars, though there's a possibility that Divergent fans would argue that point. Elgort is perfectly sublime here as Baby, a placid-faced mysterioso whose badassery exists underneath a calm exterior and a constantly worn set of headphones blasting out tunes that seemingly set the rhythm of everything he does from morning to night. The headphones aren't a gag. They help drown out the constant buzzing from a raging case of tinnitus courtesy of a childhood car accident. Baby spends his days serving as the driver for Doc's increasingly high reward heists, returning home at night to the deaf foster father (C.J. Jones) he now helps care for and occasional meals at a nearby diner where he swoons over Debora (Lily James).
Baby Driver is a heist movie pure and simple. Baby's reasons for being involved are eventually revealed, though it's apparently pretty early on in the film that Spacey's Doc serves as a sort of dysfunctional father figure but the type of father who would likely tie concrete blocks to your ankles and drag your body to the river if you disobey.
Doc has a rule that he never uses the same crew twice, a fact that makes Baby's presence on each heist a pretty damn big deal. He works with the likes of the batshit crazy Bats (Jamie Foxx), the punkish Buddy (Jon Hamm), Buddy's girl (Eiza Gonzalez), Griff (Jon Bernthal), and Eddie (Flea), all of whom don't particularly trust Baby but all of whom are subsequently proven wrong.
A good majority of the fun of Baby Driver is experiencing it unaware of what's to come, though those familiar with Edgar Wright's filmmaking proclivities won't be at all surprised by the filmmaker's stellar incorporation of tunes ranging from Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" to The Commodores' "Easy" to a number of others that aren't just quirky production choices but actually integrated in such a way that they become essential to the story that unfolds.
Seriously. It works. It really, really works.
Kudos must be given to Wright for not only utilizing American Sign Language in Baby Driver, but he's even cast the delightful actor C.J. Jones, who is deaf in real life, as Baby's foster father. The supporting cast is similarly solid here. While Spacey could play Doc in his sleep, he seems almost perversely gleeful in the role while Jamie Foxx is an off-kilter, unpredictable delight as Bats. Jon Hamm practically spits out grit as Buddy, especially toward film's end, while Eisa Gonzalez goes beyond the pretty arm candy and gives depth to her relationship with Buddy.
If there's an underdeveloped role, it's likely that of Lily James's Debora, though her persona fits nicely with Elgort's rather even-keeled presentation. While their personalities are different, their relationship always feels realistic.
It's been quite awhile since I've laughed and clapped in an action flick, but that's what happened in Baby Driver, that rare film where the risks taken weren't just gimmicks but plot devices that worked to near perfection. Baby Driver does focus a little bit heavily on the action toward the film's end and starts to lose its winning style, though minor concerns couldn't possibly erase an absolutely blast of a cinematic experience from beginning to end.
If you've longed for a rather old-fashioned heist flick with compelling characters and authentic, gritty action, Baby Driver is a film you won't want to miss.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic