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“Brighton Rock.” That’s the title of a 1974 song by Queen, and it tells you everything you need to about Edgar Wright’s newest film, “Baby Driver.” With its story of two, hip young lovers, being pulled apart by social demands, and its manic, rock ’n’ roll uplift, it’s the movie in a glam-rock nutshell. Much of the song is taken up by Queen’s guitarist, Brian May’s awe-inspiring guitar solo, while much of “Baby Driver” amounts to writer-director Wright wailing away on a movie screen in lieu of a guitar.
Fittingly, Wright scores the film’s climactic final set piece to “Brighton Rock,” and it’s a sequence that elevates a very good film into a great one. “Baby Driver” isn’t a film that achieves the transcendent right away — instead, building to it like a symphony. It’s a climax of such kinetic ecstasy that it feels like the entire film was an excuse to make these five minutes of movie heaven. And they’re five minutes that are worth the price of admission to see it on a big screen.
“Baby Driver” is about a driver. Named Baby. Baby (Ansel Elgort), is an orphan whose parents were killed in a car accident that left him with tinnitus, so he plays music from his iPod all day to drown out the perpetual hum in his ears. That never-ending soundtrack makes him one of the best getaway drivers in the bank robbing business, which is why Doc (Kevin Spacey), hires him for every job. One day, Baby meets Deborah (Lily James), and he starts to see a way out of the life of crime that’s beginning to weigh on his conscience. But of course, Doc won’t let Baby slip away so easily.
It’s a pretty been-there-done-that plot, but the film plays with its familiar premise to subvert the clichés and tropes of the gritty, bad-ass crime thriller. This is actually right in Wright’s wheelhouse. He’s already shown how adept he is at playful genre deconstruction with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But while those films played more as parody, “Baby Driver” is an earnest attempt at making the genuine article.
This time around, Wright’s making a real-deal action thriller, but he’s smart enough to know that making a carbon copy of his inspirations won’t suffice. Not only would that be lazily unoriginal, but it also wouldn’t gel with Wright’s style and sensibility. Films like “Bullitt,” “The French Connection,” and most importantly, “The Driver,” are all pessimistic, machismo drenched, noir films, with a shot of adrenaline and extra testosterone for good measure. Each were influences for “Baby Driver,” but Wright knows he’s not interested in square-jawed, gravel voiced loners who see every situation as a chance to prove how well endowed they are.
Wright’s protagonist is literally named Baby, and has a face to match. He stays quiet, not because he’s putting on a stoically intimidating front, but because he feels ill at ease in the criminal underground. He’s hardly the ideal of muscular, five-o’-clock-shadow bearing manhood that most crime protagonists are. I certainly can’t picture Steve McQueen flamboyantly and unashamedly dancing down the street while singing along to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” Can you? Wright is upending these tired, cynical tropes to improve upon them and get closer to the Platonic ideal of an action movie than anyone has gotten. He shows how silly those older films are by providing a bright, buoyant, and more honest take on the same themes, with a protagonist that is outwardly emotional and gentle, not hard and repressed.
Occasionally, Wright loses his self-awareness and slips into dull, romanticized imitation of the very styles he’s correcting. But he nearly always catches himself and of course, corrects.
This is true of the filmmaking, too. Wright is a master of editing and camerawork that’s hyperactive yet tight and disciplined. It’s what makes him one of the best action and comedy directors in recent memory. Mostly, “Baby Driver” improves upon its predecessors and contemporaries by showing a firmer grasp of craft than they could ever even conceive of.
It’s Wright’s second-best film, tied with “Hot Fuzz,” and behind “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” He still has yet to top the salvo of visual wit, sonic bravura and wildly creative insight into the minds of young people that propels “Pilgrim,” but I’m overjoyed that “Baby Driver” exists and is such an encouraging success. It’s been a passion project swimming around in Wright’s head for twenty years, and if anything, it feels like with it, there’s an itch he’s finally scratched. I hope this liberates him and opens up new avenues for his artistry. “Baby Driver” was a great warm-up, but now that you’re done showing off, let’s see what you can really do, Edgar.