Of all the comedy auteurs to arrive on the silver screen in the past 20 years, Edgar Wright has been at the top of the list since his brilliant Shaun of the Dead. For those that fell in love with the Cornetto Trilogy (myself included), the futile debate hasn’t been about ranking Wright’s films best to worst, but best to great. For the record, I go with Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and then Shaun of the Dead, although a movie night can easily be spent with all three. Wright, along with visionaries such as Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi, are the heirs to the visionary minds of Terry Gilliam and Stanley Kubrick. Film isn’t just a vehicle for funny dialogue where the visuals should be understated. Cinema can be as visually funny as the words. And Wright’s joyful embrace of this truth has made his films stand out as must sees; look away and you’ll be missing half the joke.
In defining Wright’s filmography so far, I would consider his previous films as action-comedies, because they are primarily comedies which utilize and embrace the genre conventions of action films (horror/cop/video game/sci-fi) to provide a narrative through-line and bit of loving parody. It’s with Baby Driver that he puts his comedic sensibilities on the back burner to direct a comedic action film; as funny as Baby Driver can be, it is clearly more of an action film with plenty of comedy. And while I personally expected Baby Driver to be a bit funnier, the arrival of a smart, fun, action-heist film is a welcome release for the summer months. Although barely into summer, we’ve already been hit with a mass of underperforming sequels which suffer from being overly serious, long, and repetitive. The arrival of a new intellectual property (although comparisons to films like Drive aren’t wrong) that has a sense of humor and up-beat tempo makes Baby Driver stand out.
Baby Driver is the relatively simple story of a get-away driver nicknamed “Baby,” played by Ansel Elgort who starts out a bit grating, but ends up a rather charming lead. He works for kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), proving how effortlessly funny he can be when playing things deadly serious, who uses him on bank jobs with assorted crew members (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza González). Baby wants to get out of his life of crime and make an honest living, but has debts to pay off and once you’re in, it’s dangerous to get out. One last job becomes two, and while trying to build a new life with a lovely waitress (Lily James), he finds himself sucked in even further. Baby plans his getaway drives by orchestrating them to music (a constant presence in the film). While most films provide a soundtrack to accompany a film, Wright’s created a winning soundtrack and built a cinematic world around it.
But as mentioned above, Baby Driver is unlike most of Wright’s other films. The movie frequently gets laughs (and big ones), but the hallmark of his Cornetto Trilogy, the speed that he throws out silliness (motivated by plot, character, and genre conventions) were breakneck. And the joyful quality of those three films, no-doubt influenced by the collaboration between writer/director and writers/stars, gave those films a youthful exuberance that’s often infectious for viewers. Baby Driver probably is the best technical film of Wright’s impressive career, and far better than most of the action films we get. But while Wright’s joyful spirit infuses the film with its comic undertone, there is a lack of laugh-out-loud silliness in Baby Driver I honestly do miss.
Perhaps silliness just isn’t in vogue in today’s comedies. We seem to like weird and random humor, but sweet and silly just isn’t cool anymore. And more than funny, Baby Driver’s primary achievement is its undeniable coolness. I don’t mean Wright’s films haven’t previously been “cool,” but the priorities with Baby Driver are clearly different; coolness is the goal, rather than the result. Wright leans into the coolness of a 90’s aesthetic, but rarely with a satirical or parodic commentary on it. Perhaps culture’s current, sometimes toxic, pre-occupation with defining what is and isn’t cool is the real commentary Wright wants to make with this film.
Regardless of intention, Wright’s inherent intelligence and playful personality does come through in this excellent thrill-ride. While this may be an action blockbuster, it’s an excellent of example of a well-made film. The action is clean and fast (minus a minor 15-20 minute sag in the middle), the plot is simple yet compelling, and all the main characters (even the most dreadful) prove to be engaging. Like Speed, Point Break, and Die Hard, Baby Driver is the best kind of action film; a breath of fresh air compared to the multi-film universes and franchises we get from studios every week.
While I don’t understand the critical wave declaring this Wright’s best film, that isn’t meant to be a dismissal of the excellent Baby Driver. I completely agree that this is one of the best summer films we’ve had in a long time. It’s a fun time at the movies that doesn’t require you to turn your brain off. While it may disappoint those looking for a comedy this summer, anyone looking for a solid action movie will probably get a kick out of Baby Driver.