It’s one of the drawbacks as life as a filmmaker: you can sink months or even years of your life into a screenplay that will never be sold or a movie project that will never go into production. Such was the fate of Ant-Man, director Edgar Wright’s take on the Marvel superhero; Wright departed the project in 2014, eight years after he began working on it with co-writer Joe Cornish. The film was finally brought to the screen by Yes Man director Peyton Reed; like David Cronenberg’s Total Recall or Guillermo del Toro’s The Hobbit, Wright’s Ant-Man became one of cinema’s what-might-have-beens.
Still, if Wright’s brush with Marvel took the wind out of his sails, there’s no sign of it in Baby Driver – his frenetic homage to the crime thrillers of the 70s and 80s. In essence, it’s The Driver mixed with the fizzy, amped-up tone of Wright’s adaptation of Scott Pilgrim. Or, to put it another way, it’s a kind of action musical: La La Land with a V8 engine and shotguns.
Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a fresh-faced driving expert who serves as the wheelman for criminal mastermind Doc (a stony-faced Kevin Spacey). While helping a motley assortment of deranged bank robbers stay one step ahead of the law, Baby spends the entire time listening to an eclectic mix of rock, rap and soul on his iPod: a tic that allows him to maintain a zen-like calm behind the wheel, while at the same time blocking out the tinnitus that has plagued him since childhood.
The plot’s familiar thriller stuff, as Baby pledges to do the archetypal “one last heist” for Doc before he settles down to a regular job and, potentially, a quiet life with his new girlfriend, waitress Debora (Lily James). That Baby’s partners in crime are the permanently wired Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the downright psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx) means that the entire plan is constantly on a knife-edge.
It’s the kind of premise that could form a straight-to-DVD action thriller, but Wright (who writes as well as directs) brings enough style, heart and hip direction to make Baby Driver something far more individual. First, there’s the time spent on making Baby a character worth rooting for: vulnerable yet athletic, handsome yet at the same time geeky: when he isn’t driving a car sidways, he also has a strange penchant for recording bits of conversation and then turning them into experimental pieces of electronic music.
Then there are the action scenes, which aren’t so much John Woo or Jerry Bruckheimer as Busby Berkeley; the music constantly playing on Baby’s iPod provides the groove for the whole film, with gunfire, tyre squeals and crashes all precisely – and engrossingly – edited to the beat of Wright’s jukebox soundtrack. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the song choices, but the clarity and confidence of Wright’s direction is undeniable; this is his most action-filled film so far, and he acquits himself superbly. Baby Driver relies less on the speed-ramping and CGI of Scott Pilgrim, or indeed the ever-popular Fast & Furious films. The action’s bonkers, but it looks physical and real, like stunt drivers did it rather than guys sitting at computer workstations.
As heady and upbeat as Baby Driver is, the film is also remarkably violent and gruesome at times – little to surprise to fans of Shaun Of The Dead, perhaps, but potentially a shock to audiences who, having seen the trailers, might be expecting a knockabout action caper. But just when things threaten to get as dark as some of the films Wright evidently loves – The Driver (Walter Hill even gets a blink and you’ll miss him cameo), Michael Mann’s Heat or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – the movie pulls us back. This means that, although Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx are scary enough – Hamm firmly slamming the door on his clean-cut Don Draper years here – Baby Driver remains an upbeat popcorn movie (John Landis’ cult classic Blues Brothers may have also been an influence on Wright’s mix of music and mayhem).
Indeed, beneath all the designer violence and pounding music, Baby Driver’s good natured to the point of being almost quaint. Not all the plot choices are necessarily the right ones – there’s a glaring reliance on coincidence, and Paul Williams, who plays a flamboyant gun runner, spends so long talking about pork and bacon in his lone scene that it starts to feel like a joke at Jon Hamm’s expense. Jon Bernthal, and another character who we won’t name, are also disappointingly underused, and the action sequences in the final reel lack some of the scale and imagination of the earlier ones.
Those are all quibbles when stacked up against Baby Driver gets right. Lean, expertly made and full of fun, Baby Driver is one of those films that had this writer leaving the cinema with a smile on his face. In short, it’s the cinema equivalent of a full-on sugar rush.
Baby Driver is out in UK cinemas on the 28th June.