Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver
Cert: 15 / 113 mins / Dir. Edgar Wright / Trailer

Well okay, this will be a review of two parts: the first is for people who haven't yet seen Baby Driver, the second for those who have. There are no real spoilers in the latter section, but without the context of having seen the film it'll only make limited sense. So, here goes...

The things I liked about Baby Driver…

Baby Driver is the new heist movie from British writer and director Edgar Wright. A smart, funny standalone action flick, it holds stylistic and thematic nods to his previous work, but no narrative ones. The story follows a young, automotively-gifted getaway driver who goes by the name of Baby (Ansel Elgort), and the interaction with his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) as he tries to distance himself from an accomplished criminal career and an ever-changing crew of robbers, killers and outright psychopaths.

So as mentioned above the film is smart, the film is funny and there is plenty of action. While many are hailing this as an antidote to the Fast & Furious franchise, that's an unfair comparison as Baby Driver is a story about people, not machines. The car-chases here serve to drive the story forward, not the other way around. The film's not quite as smooth and zippy as its trailers might suggest, but that's because the promo-reels touch more on the style rather than the substance, and while the film never goes into melodrama mode, Wright carefully builds his central characters along the way, to the point where standoffs and shootouts feel genuinely perilous, rather than the through-the-motions setpieces we've become used to over the years.

The whole thing is also heavily soundtracked of course (more on that below), so if you get overwhelmed by the fast-paced scripting and editing, you can at least tap your along with your foot in the meanwhile.

The Summer-season is turning out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Baby Driver will be one of the highlights. It's great fun, see it soon…

The things which bugged me about Baby Driver…

So, why didn't I love this? Oh I liked it very much, but I'd be hard pushed to go further than that. Part of the problem could be the near-universal praise Baby Driver has had heaped upon it before the film is even on general release. I'm used to my brain wanting to automatically rail against that and find things wrong with a movie, but when it's a filmmaker I admire as much as Edgar Wright it almost becomes personal: 'I know what you're capable of because I've seen you at your best, so impress me - raise the bar'.

But the guy's bar is not only way too high to begin with, it's also beginning to recede into the distance. While I've enjoyed all his big-screen outings, I tend to rank Shaun of the Dead at the top and everything else pretty much on a (only slightly) downward-scale from there. I remember feeling slightly put-out that Wright had left Ant-Man mid-production, not least because I ended up loving that movie and wondered what there was about the final product that he'd disagreed with to the point where he'd quit altogether. So then I look at the tonal in-fighting there is throughout Baby Driver and think 'what was the utopian vision for this movie?', because I don't think the film I watched embodied that. There's a layer of genuine sentimentality across the whole screenplay which is more than welcome, but sits ill-at-ease with the snark and cynicism practiced by the characters. Neither comes across as genuinely as they should in an Edgar Wright movie, and the whole thing shudders as a result.

Speaking of which, the players. Ansel Elgort is refreshingly enjoyable in the central role*1, but still feels essentially miscast. For my money, Michael Cera would have been ideal for this, not least since he'd have had to leave his own comfort-zone as an actor. Lily James is also great to watch as always (although she gets comparatively little to do), but feels a little too clean for the role of a burned-out yet still optimistic waitress. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey can't quite pass off the hard-edged cynicism he needs to as gang-boss and blasé murderer, Doc. But nor can he bring the warmth to the moments where he shows that he has some genuine fondness for his favourite and long-time driver.

On the plus-side (and with comparatively less screen-time), Jamie Foxx, John Hamm and Eiza González all fantastic as opportunistic career-criminals. Jon Bernthal has a minor role as Jon Bernthal™ but with a beard, which he pulls off with his accustomed ease.

But the biggest bugbear I have with Baby Driver is probably the relentless diegetic soundtrack. It's not that I disliked any of the tracks used*2, nor were songs were shoehorned in (I'm looking at you, DC), or that the idea was feeling strained (ditto, Marvel). More that it's over-used, to the point where a device which is to all intents and purposes a character in itself, loses relevance the closer the film gets to its third-act*3. And having punches, gunshots and explosions synced in time with the soundtrack works in a trailer but becomes distracting throughout an entire film. In fact many of the action sequences have the air of being tweaked in post-production to add more dynamic energy, but have instead come out feeling cluttered.

But for all my grumbling, I should add that it's not a case of 'this film should be better', just 'I should have enjoyed it more'. There were parts of the movie which had me grinning like a lunatic, but there were far more that I found disjointed, or like a work-in-progress from an earlier draft of the script*4.

All of this is me just groping for a way to justify saying that Baby Driver is very good, but not Wright's best work (future or past) by a long shot. But the pre-built hype and my predisposition to enjoy the director's work makes it feel like saying "it's good" isn't enough, somehow. Fully aware I'm in a minority here, although I take no joy from that.

Baby Driver: it's good.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The film's probably more American Ultra and The Nice Guys than Scott Pilgrim.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Oh, absolutely - it's big and loud and full-on enough to justify the ticket, certainly.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
I think it does, but also that it could have achieved so much more.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's not.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I won't.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Lily James is in this, and she was in that Wrath of the Titans along with Liam 'Qui-Gon' Neeson and Toby 'Additional Voices in The Old Republic' Kebbell.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Regular readers might recall the time Elgort played a terminally-ill teenager who I spent a film's run-time wishing would hurry the fuck up about it all. Although don't get me wrong, I found his character in this film deeply annoying for the first twenty minutes or so. Thankfully two things then happen: 1) we get to know a bit more about him and 2) he tones it down a lot, anyway. [ BACK ]

*2 Serious note though, writer/directors: your taste in music is nowhere near as quirky, clever, cool or interesting as you think it is, I promise you. I've currently got Slayer, Lady Antebellum and Così fan tutte on my iPod, but I wouldn't dream of shoehorning them into a screenplay for geek-points. At the risk of beginning a rant, I'm getting a bit tired of sitting in the cinema and imagining the initial phone call to the producer's office: "Hey guys! I've got a great idea for a soundtrack! …er, I mean film! Yes a film, that's it! I mean both, obviously, whatever…". Going to see an action/hero movie is increasingly becoming like arriving at a party to find one guy guarding the stereo in the corner because he's brought all his own records. And he then insists on describing why he's chosen each one as he goes (this is a broad simile of course; I don't go to parties. And if I find myself at one, I try to stay as far away from All The People as possible). [ BACK ]

*3 And as a slight aside, I should mention that it's explained in the film that Baby suffers from Tinnitus due to a childhood accident and almost constantly plays music 'to drown it out'. While I'd put money on there being some level of personal experience in the writing of his character, members of the audience who also suffer from the hearing disorder will be fully aware that while music is indeed a welcome distraction, the pasttime doesn't replace the humming/ringing/screeching noise, more that the listener gets music plus Tinnitus. Which, over time, leads to more Tinnitus.
Just saying, because that's not addressed in the script... [ BACK ]

*4 And for those of you who've seen the film, is there a significance behind the lack of internet/smartphones? Baby's obsession with cassettes and analogue recording works in the context of the story, but Doc hands out flip-phones to his crew for the duration of each job, and at one point his son Samm is seen with a PSP. I'd thought at first that maybe the film was set in the mid 00s, but since we get a flashback showing a 3-4yr old Baby receiving his first (and 1st-generation) iPod, it's reasonable to assume that took place circa 2001 and the story-proper takes place around sixteen years later, ie now. So is Doc keeping his criminal network nicely undercover by having them use phones that your grandad would get laughed at for using in public? Also ref the iPod, Baby's got a range of different devices all loaded up with different playlists (a nice touch), yet I don't recall seeing him use a computer at all (they ain't going to sync themselves)? I'm hoping there's a PC (with like, thirty user profiles on it) in the background of a shot in his flat, and I just didn't notice it... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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