Thursday, July 6, 2017

Brief thoughts on Baby Driver.

As his criminal allies wander into the bank to rob its riches, a lone getaway driver waits in his sleek car, drowning out the noise with his rockin' tunes, pounding and drumming to the music in rhythmic pace. Even when the group make their big getaway, his keen sense of rhythm still chugs along, weaving and bobbing through traffic in time to his soundtrack like a devil behind the wheel. One could say that the rhythm of these songs is like a heartbeat to him; a frantic, unruly, but also soulful heartbeat acting as something of an odd moral compass, that suggests numerous deep and unexplored layers with each new track. As is the case with this man (his name's Baby), so too is with the film he is attached to, a film so rousing and hyper-kinetic that you'll be left breathless by the time of its closing moments. This is Baby Driver.

Baby Driver is the newest film from director Edgar Wright, best known as the director of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. A long gestating passion project for the man, Baby Driver comes four years after his conclusion to the Cornetto Trilogy The World's End, and two years after his fallout with Marvel's Ant-Man (which was probably what helped fund this movie). In fact, the idea for this film is such an old concept, that he used the basic idea as the basis for Mint Royale's "Blue Song" music video. Wright now takes to expanding the idea into his newest feature, creating an utterly thrilling and thoroughly entertaining pure action flick (a rarity nowadays, especially those with little CGI).

It's often said that the soundtrack is the heartbeat of a movie, in which case, that literally seems to be the case here. In many ways, Wright's film almost feels like a jukebox musical, in which singing and dancing have been swapped for car chases, firefights, and swift parkour. The music throughout the film is so meticulously thought out, as during each individual song that plays, the imagery onscreen will often be matching and triggering in time with the songs, from car doors slamming and guns firing off, to the vehicles that are a prominent feature of the film screeching as songs hit their peaks or intense solos. Baby Driver is a film very much based around music, boasting an awesome mix that would make even Star-Lord jealous, but beyond seeming surface-value gimmicks, actually has much more depth to their selections than meets the eye, as was similarly Guardians of the Galaxy's case.

Obviously I expected the heavy adrenaline and thrills going in, but if you told me that Baby Driver was going to be intimate, I may not have believed you. In the lead role we see Ansel Elgort anchoring the whole film, and while I've made my apathy to him no secret in the past, Wright seems to have found a perfect, genuinely charismatic place for his sensibilities here. Elgort spends a good chunk of the movie silent and observing his experiences from a distance, standing off to the side when his revolving mob groups (led by Kevin Spacey's paternal yet sinister Doc) are coordinating heists, shutting the world out of his mind when laying low in his getaway rides, and overall just oblivious to the streets of the city when simply getting his gang a cup of coffee. It's established early on that a car crash caused tinnitus that his music is meant to drown out, but sometime down the line it seems as if this is an excuse for the real issue, that being his habit of closing himself off from the world. In short, he lives in his own bubble, especially vital to do when he's always surrounded by colorful, and very dangerous personalities.

And when I say dangerous, I mean it. In a very bad place since his youth, Baby has landed himself in a very vicious environment, one where attachments are especially deadly, especially since Baby is left to take care of his wheelchair bound and deaf stepfather (terrifically played by deaf actor CJ Jones). With how often these players are rotated out, it can be very hard to pinpoint their true behavior and personalities, especially with how quickly they can fly off the hinges at a moment's notice. These faces include Jon Bernthal in a cameo role in the first fifteen minutes, and Eiza Gonzalez as the Bonnie to Jon Hamm's Clyde. Jamie Foxx gets to have a lot of devilish fun as the headstrong Bats, an aggressive psychopath with an itchy trigger finger who often challenges Baby's internal moral compass, and is a genuinely terrifying and unpredictable presence showing little if any remorse at all times. But no less terrifying is Jon Hamm's Buddy, a former banker who appears to be the most level-minded and affable member of the gang, even coming to Baby's defense at various points, and exudes that natural charm Hamm is best known for. But at the same time, it's made very clear that Buddy also has a very dark side, with the film superbly building tension leading up to those sequences where the charm breaks down, and mindless, monstrous rage and hostility take over, managing to make even Barry White's "Never Never Gonna Give You Up" seem threatening.

Seems like the perfect environment for Baby to want to shut out, detach himself, and escape from as soon as he can. Yet in spite of the constant confining himself into a bubble, Baby still carries this incredible, and powerful soul in his select, but crucial defining choices throughout the film. It's in character moments like this where those song selections do more than just provide amusing aesthetic pleasures, but that actually manage to connect him with the emotions and heart instilled in him by the figures of his life, from his deceased mother whose musical roots have haunted and guided him through his life, to now winning the heart of local dreamer waitress Debora (beautifully, sweetly, breathtakingly played by Lily James). With the song selections, Wright not only goes above and beyond in using them as story enhancements, but in relaying a deeper theme in how music drives us and plays a crucial role in lives, how the music that we pass on to others come to create meaningful connections, and furthermore acts as a defining trait for us. It's a film about how music has gone beyond mere entertainment value, to now becoming important in our lives.

BUT... while we're on the topic, are the aesthetics of the film ever a spectacular sight to behold. I think how well the music is matched to imagery by Paul Machliss and Johnathan Amos - the same duo behind the masterstroke of invention Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - is impressive enough on its own, creating an inseparable identity to the film, but is some of the most fluid, breezy, but also somber pacing and cutting jobs of any film in the last decade. It's a true big screen spectacle, weaving between set-pieces and character building with seamless transition, and showcasing the full practicality, explosiveness, and sleekness of the action in their full glory (heck, there's even a humorous nod to The Blues Brothers). You just don't see that kind of close-shave precise stuntwork anymore, and the fact that all of this is going on with minimal CGI at most makes it all the more visceral.  But this spectacle is also one that demands to be *heard* in the cinema, wrapping the melodic texture and ubiquity of the soundtrack in an enclosed 360 soundscape that dominates the space around us, almost as if Baby's earbuds have been given to us. That level of immersion is something that can't be replicated by the living room.

Not only is it the most technically well accomplished film of Wright's ouevre, but also the most fully-dimensional and emotionally packed of his films. Films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are unquestionably funnier, but I don't think until now has he managed to encapsulate every quality that makes him such a great filmmaker as well as with this. In fact, the movie is such a rush and left me so jittery, I almost immediately wanted to go back in and watch it again. It's the first pure action movie in a long time that has left me genuinely breathless, and more than earns its right to rank among the likes of Bullit and The French Connection.

As Bats puts it, "That's some Oscar s--t, right there."

****1/2 / *****

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