RECAP: Baby Driver
Baby Driver (2017): Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright made his career directing Simon Pegg movies. He almost got Ant-Man and he almost got the fourth Mission: Impossible film. He helped write The Adventures of Tin Tin, a movie with so much Oscar weight behind it that the film barely made it to out.
All these experiences helped create the wholly Wright project of Baby Driver. A “kind of musical,” Baby Driver surprised box office prognosticators for succeeding, because it’s an original idea and who has the energy to see original movies these days?
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A hearing-challenged young man drives getaway cars for Atlanta bank robbers to a fantastic score.
Baby Driver is a different kind of heist movie. Let’s get that clear from the start. Keep that in mind.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the code name of Miles, a young man who could be in college, but is instead spending his young adulthood as the getaway driver for a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey).
Orphaned as a young boy, Baby lives with his ancient foster father Joe (C.J. Jones), a deaf man bound to a wheelchair who doesn’t approve of Baby’s associates but won’t try to stop him. Baby shows his kindness early and often. He makes sandwiches for Joe. Forced to steal an elderly lady’s car late in the film, Baby tosses her her purse as he’s peeling into a 180.
He’ll need these skills to stay sane in the world of bad criminals. Early in life, Baby stole Doc’s car. Doc’s not the kind of man you steal from, but his youth and audacity saved him. Doc coerced him into being his permanent wheelman, and as the film opens, Baby is two jobs away from repaying that debt.
The injury he suffered in the car accident that orphaned him saddled Baby with a permanent hum in his ears. His solution: constantly listen to music.
Baby has structured his life around music. He can’t let others begin a robbery until he starts a new song. While the robbery goes on, Baby drowns out the sounds with kicking jams. The Beach Boys, Beck, Barry White, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Young MC, and Simon and Garfunkel are all heard in Baby’s ears and on the soundtrack. A more varied movie soundtrack I do not know.
The music drowns the hum and also distracts him from the violence he enables. For one robbery, Baby lets the robbers out and pulls his truck forward ten feet. Baby’s head blocks our sight of the robbery and prevents Baby himself from witnessing the violence. When he eyes a dead truck guard, he’s horrified.
On the quirky side, Baby has hobbies. His spacious apartment doubles as a recording studio full of technology 10 years or more old. Ancient iPods spill out of his pockets. One for each mood. When Baby meets his future lover Debora (Lily James) for the first time, he’s in a pink sparkle kind of mood.
Sunglasses, blue vest, white earbuds, sneakers–that’s Baby’s uniform, and he won’t let anyone sass him about it. One criminal smacks a pair off his face. Baby draws out new ones. Some bad guys have guns and knives stashed everywhere; Baby has music and sunglasses.
After fulfilling his debt, Baby delivers pizzas. It’s endearing and honest work, though he counts money in 10s and 20s, not the stacks of $10,000 Doc gave him after jobs. Those went straight into the floor of his apartment.
Baby’s nice side keeps him off death row, setting up a happy ending to a life of crime.
Elgort appeared in teen-skewed movies such as Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars. His star has certainly risen since taking on the titular role in Baby Driver. However, it’s hard to say what he can do. Baby is essentially an adult’s vision of every teenager in the 21st century: not listening, not caring, music on and turned loud.
Baby’s dissonance with the crime world makes him a hard character to crack. Elgort makes fine work interacting with Debora, but his character doesn’t have enough interpersonal skills to dominate the screen. This is why Jamie Foxx nearly takes over the movie in the second act.
When Baby was a child, literally a child, he tried to steal Doc’s car. Doc was spellbound by the sheer audacity of a child boosting a car. Since that day, Doc has forced Baby to drive for him until the debt was repaid. We don’t know how many of these jobs Baby has done, only that his bank job to open the film is the next to last.
Kevin Spacey enjoys the hell out of his role as Doc, apparently Atlanta’s top crime lord. It’s not hard to consider Doc as Kaiser Soze in the twilight of his long career. Whoever he is, Doc has mellowed in his violence while sharpening his dialogue: “Still has a hum in the drum.” “Shop. Let’s talk it.” “Young Mozart in a go kart over there.” Doc’s speech mannerisms fulfill the boredom his job likely brings him. He’s tired of the same old same old.
Doc never brings the same crew on each job, but he’s assembled some old favorites to rob the last place in the world anyone would expect to be robbed–a post office. This job ends in disaster. Actually, it starts, continues, and ends in disaster, though most of the fault lies with the crew rather than Doc specifically.
After Doc releases Baby from his debts, he forces him to drive again, this time for big pay days. He won’t let the most talented wheelman in America walk away in the prime of his career. Doc never threatens Baby, but only because he doesn’t have to. Still, when the bad guys come after Doc, Baby takes the bullets so his protege can survive.
Baby Driver is a different kind of action movie. Edgar Wright wants that clear from scene one. A red Subaru sedan stops outside a bank in central Atlanta. Three bespoke robbers (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González) leave the car, pulling up bandannas to mask the lower halves of their faces. Rub your hands together, there’s about to be a bank robbery.
Except we won’t see it. Instead, the camera stays on the driver, a kid who wears sunglasses and earbuds. He starts the song “Bellbottoms” by The John Spencer Blues Explosion. (John Spencer is a white dude who made a good blues song in the ’90s. That’s as high a degree of difficulty as a song can get.)
The lyrics kick in and Baby mouths them. He loves this song, and treats it like you would a song you love–by using the entire car as a drum kit. Baby taps the wheel, pats the chassis outside the car window. He takes it next level by sliding his hand across the rear view mirror and turning the wipers on to match the beat.
Meanwhile, his passengers are robbing the bank across the street. Baby looks at them every few seconds, especially when the shotguns boom. For Baby, though, all this high tension comes through lo-fi.
Soon, the robbers are back in the car. Baby’s turn. He peels out-backwards. No, it’s not a mistake. Baby might be the best getaway driver, or “wheelman,” in the world. He can use the handbrake to execute perfect u-turns and 90-degree turns, using manual or automatic. Baby uses this maneuver at least three times during the ensuing police chase.
Baby isn’t worried about the police. He’s more concerned with enjoying the song that’s still playing in his earbuds and on the soundtrack. His passengers say nothing, understanding that a genius is at work, and they must let him do his job.
The police throw tire spikes across the road. Baby uses the handbrake again to dodge to the left. The pursuing cop car hits the spikes. Soon, five cars are in Baby’s rear view, driving in flying V formation, lights flashing, sirens blaring. Still, “Bellbottoms” rages.
Now on one of Atlanta’s generous highways, Baby spots two red sedans driving the opposite direction. He’s beaten the cars, but not the helicopter thump-thump-thumping above.
Baby streaks across the median somehow and into the other set of lanes. He drives between the red sedans and waits until all three cars are beneath an overpass. Baby veers as if he will ram the left sedan, forcing that driver to switch to the center lane.
The cars emerge and Baby, now on the left, peels onto the off ramp. The helicopter, fooled by this three car monte, follows the decoys. Baby finds the nearest parking garage that happens to have another getaway car waiting for them, and all four people get out and drive away in a new car.
Oh, and the song ends.
A different kind of heist movie, Baby Driver is all about the cars and the music.
Another scene starts outside the post office as Baby drives into position for pickup, behind the building. Drops of rain tink on the windshield, and Baby flicks on the wipers, which streak across the mostly dry glass to the song’s beat.
An insane man who wears a king car sweater, Bats (Jamie Foxx), exits the vehicle with his silly light-up, CCTV-confounding glasses. A moment later, Baby eyes Dolly, a friendly postal clerk who gave Doc’s nephew a starlight mint the day before, as Baby cased the joint. Baby subtly shakes his head as Dolly waves.
Dolly responds by fetching a security guard. Her behavior surprised me; I don’t know if my mind would go to “crime in progress” if a man I met yesterday shook his head at me. Post offices are hardly robbery targets.
Yet, get a security guard Dolly does. When that guy approaches the car, Bats, Buddy, and Darling emerge from the back entrance with the money orders. Bats doesn’t hesitate to shoot the guard with a shotgun blast.
All four in the car now, Baby is faced with a decision. Will he finally get his hands dirty? Bats, riding shotgun, barks at Baby to drive. That’s exactly what he does. Baby clicks off the passenger airbag and peels forward into a flatbed truck. A bundle of rebar protruding from the truck breaks the windshield and spears Bats into a bloody mess.
“Nowhere to Run” plays on the soundtrack. Now without a working car, Baby and the love birds have nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. Baby, unarmed, runs. Buddy and Darling run and shoot at the pursuing cops.
Now follows a terrific, active foot chase through downtown Atlanta. The camera stays with Baby. He hops along picnic tables and jumps ledges and slides over car hoods. Baby hides behind a tree and slows down. Buddy and Darling flee the cops on foot nearby. Baby hears the thump-thump-thump of a police helicopter and the wail of sirens.
Next comes more free running, this time in a mall. Impressively, the cops follow Baby on foot when the camera struggles to stay with him. Clothing store, escalator, electronics store, loading bay and Baby’s in a parking lot stealing another car, driving away, and into a truck…stolen by Buddy and Darling. Ha.
Darling, wearing a posh purple trenchcoat and sporting double machine guns, has had it with this shit. Cops everywhere, she opens fire on them all. This doesn’t last long. Cops shoot her a half dozen times, and she drops dead on the black top.
Understandably, her death upsets Buddy, who shoots at the cops in time with the song and shoots one of Baby’s custom iPods.
There’s not much action between here and the climax, but plenty of intrigue and police chasing. Wright has accomplished much in his career in melding comedy and action, and those moments are present in Baby Driver‘s action scenes.
Baby can count on his roommate/foster father Joe for moral support. Baby signs to Joe and makes him sandwiches with peanut butter spread to the edges. But Baby’s missing something in his life until he walks into Bo’s Diner and meets Jonathan.
Make that Debora. Sitting in a mid-century lycra booth, Baby hears the sounds of Debora singing a song about “baby.” Baby whips out his tape recorder to capture the soothing sounds for a later mixtape. Debora’s smitten with Baby from first sight, neglecting her waiting duties to chat with the tall drink of water sitting in her section.
They hit it off immediately, and their dialogue in the diner scenes is a swell microcosm of the film’s strong script. Debora wants to drive “west on 20 with a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have.” Later, she asks Baby, “Know what you want yet?” Baby says, “to get out of here.”
They discuss songs. Debora’s mad because her sister Mary has all the good songs, even the Beck song “Debra” is about Debra’s sister. Then she asks, “Your name’s Baby? B-A-B-Y Baby?” All the songs are about Baby.
Debora can’t wait to cut loose with Baby. She supports him from the start, attracted to his mystery. Learning his real job doesn’t faze her. After the post office job blows up, Debora finds herself in the crosshairs of an angry, vengeful Buddy. She sticks with Baby and helps him win the day.
Lily James plays Debora like she walked off the set of a David Lynch retro 1950s fantasy, complete with Baby’s black and white fantasy sequences. Her slow drawl is the perfect cadence for her lover’s name, drawing out his name until it’s two-and-a-half syllables, almost three: Baye-bee.
In the grand scheme, all the characters in Baby Driver are villains and henchmen. Still, some oppose Baby more than others.
Chief among them is Jamie Foxx as Bats, named for being batty, or, more likely in the Atlanta criminal underworld, for being bat-shit crazy. Bats is crazy enough that he has bats tattooed on his neck. “I’m the one [on this crew] with mental problems. Position’s taken.”
Foxx arrives after the first robbery and nearly steals the movie. He wears a red sweater with a king playing card on it. Bats doesn’t trust Baby from the first, questioning whether or not Baby listened to anything Doc told them about the upcoming armored truck robbery. When Baby repeats back the plan, Bats is not swayed.
They rob the truck. Bats tries to kill a civilian trying to stop them; Baby smoothly prevents it. Bats doesn’t like Baby, probably thinks he’s elitist. Poor guy doesn’t even like Baby’s music. “Fucking Queen, fucking Barbra Streisand.” Like a veteran who doesn’t like the hotshot new kid, Bats takes it as his job to challenge Baby every step of the way. Late in the movie, sitting Bo’s Diner, Bats asks Baby if he knows Debora, and Baby says no, of course. Bats draws a pistol to rob her, until Baby rises to stop him.
Buddy and Darling come as a team. Jon Hamm buzzed the side of his head to look more menacing, but this is a guy born looking hungover. His ‘do is not addition by subtraction. Enough of that.
The only backstory we get for these lovebirds comes from Bats speculating about them. He’s a Wall Street guy; she’s a lap dancer. They fell in love and travel the country robbing people after Buddy’s disgraced exit from white collar trading. The lovers grind their teeth while Bats quizzes them, so the story seems accurate. They never deny it.
Buddy’s and Darling’s names might be fake, but their love isn’t. They sport His and Hers neck tattoos. She sits on his lap a lot. Buddy has killed people for looking at her wrong. Buddy offers to take them to Las Vegas to get married “again.”
Both criminals love the rush. After the post office bust, Darling finds the cops have her surrounded. She fires double machine guns at them until the cops shoot her dead. Buddy blames Baby for her death–not unjustifiably–and tries to kill Debora as penance.
Strong supporting acting from Foxx, Gonzalez, Hamm, James and Spacey help make Baby Driver the great film it is.
Stunt driving excels all over Baby Driver. The opening sequence is a master class in urban driving. Baby drifts his getaway car through an alley, hitting an impossible gap.
More great driving fills the truck robbery scene. Take a look at this:
Baby gets out of this scrape after driving the same truck halfway up a wall to escape a citizen’s arrest. Handbrakes turns, drifting, and a 180-degree turn while talking to someone outside the car make Baby Driver an all-time great driving movie.
After the post office job goes bad and Baby drops Joe off at a safe house, he needs to get out of the biz. Forever. He takes a stack of stolen money orders to Doc’s place to exchange them for a car.
Baby and Doc ride the elevator to Doc’s car. The two are going to part ways, finally, but not how they expect.
The elevator door opens on three flak-jacket wearing men. One of them says Doc’s secret magic word, “Bananas,” and shoots Doc. Doc doesn’t hesitate; he shotguns all three. They are wearing protection, so they go down, but not out.
Doc, who loves the sound of his own voice, can’t stop lecturing Baby. He doesn’t see the not-dead cop rise up and shoot him again, nor does he notice that the cop car approaching has Buddy behind the wheel. Buddy’s having a bad day, in which his wife was murdered in the past hour. He takes it out on Doc by driving over him at great speed.
Buddy’s got Baby’s killer track kicking. “Brighton Song” by “fucking” Queen. Buddy drives into and over Doc. Baby shoots at Buddy, but has to leap over the speed demon. That’s right, Baby runs over the speeding car. Buddy, his blood lust at the maximum, smashes the car into a concrete doorway.
As Buddy spins the wheels to escape the doorway, Baby and Debora escape into Doc’s Mercedes. Buddy then pursues Baby as the latter peels up the parking deck ramps in reverse, using the back-up camera. Neato!
Next thing you know, Debora is standing alone, staring down the pilfered cop car. Awash in red light, Buddy floors it toward her. It’s a trap. Baby smashes into Buddy’s side with a stolen Bronco.
Now it’s a shoving match, and Buddy’s souped-up police cruiser is losing to an ancient Ford SUV. I don’t believe it. No matter, Buddy’s car pushes through the railing and falls over the edge, plunging 40 feet and catching fire.
The camera rises from the ground to Baby’s level. Of course, Buddy got out in time. The moment of reckoning has come. “Now I take something from you,” Buddy says. We expect him to shoot Debora, and he is planning to do that, but first he pops two bullets past each side of Baby’s head, shorting out what remains of his ear drums. No more killer tracks for Baby. Sadly, Buddy thinks, Baby won’t hear his lover’s screams.
Debora hasn’t sat idly in the Bronco. She digs around and finds a crowbar, attacking Buddy with it. That allows Baby enough time to find Buddy’s gun and plug him, sending him over the edge and into the car below.
After this brouhaha, Baby goes to jail. He gives himself up on a bridge, telling Debora what was kind of true about himself. “You don’t belong in this world.”
I wouldn’t call Baby Driver funny so much as light-hearted. The constant soundtrack of classic blues and rock makes your toes tap. These songs don’t stop, they only fade into the background so characters can deliver crackling dialogue.
The songs, driving, and dialogue are so fast and upbeat that you can’t help but smile. Nevertheless, good lines permeate. Bats says, “I do drugs to support a robbery habit.” Baby, upholding his not being a snitch, says, “I squeal on the road.”
Other, subtler tricks are employed to keep the audience happy. Consider the bros vaping in the red Mustang Baby steals near the end. Consider The Butcher, a weapons dealer so dialed into his metaphoric name that he might not understand that he actually sells weapons. Doc sends his crew to buy guns from The Butcher. The Butcher sells them sausages (grenades), and choice cuts of sizzling bacon and pork loin. He offers “the best price in all of Christendom.” Has anyone said “Christendom” in the past three centuries?
You might not like Baby Driver, but you can’t hate it. Good vibes pulse from every frame. Stylistically and thematically, Baby Driver represents what La La Land should have been: characters to cheer for and an uplifting musicality.
You have to pay attention to realize Baby Driver is set in Atlanta. Its towers, banks, post offices, throwback diners, and wide highways could be any large city in America. Bo’s Diner sticks most in the mind, if only because such diners are rarities in the 21st century. Aside from that, there’s nothing unique about these places. Thankfully, the movie does not suffer for it.
Baby Driver zeroes in on its titular character. It has no interest in why people rob banks, or in bank robberies at all, instead spending its time seeing what Baby’s up to.
Baby Driver is about as clean as its characters’ hands are dirty.
- Neck tattoos seem to fascinate Edgar Wright. J.D. discusses his “HAT” tattoo with Baby. “Who doesn’t like hats?” he more or less says. Bats has bats flying up his person. Buddy and Darling have “His” and “Hers” tattooed on their necks.
- Thank goodness Baby Driver was made just before cordless earbuds took off. Baby would look too silly, too science-fiction-y wearing the new earbuds without cords.
- (2) Bonus points for the terrific dialogue. Sure, people don’t talk like they talk in Baby Driver, but people don’t drive or rob banks like that either. That’s not always why we watch movies.
Summary (40/68): 59%
Baby Driver shares much with the almost-Best Picture winner La La Land. Both films express a love of old music and music styles. Each film is active cinematographically. Despite La La Land‘s original score and Baby Driver‘s soundtrack of classic and obscure jams, the latter feels much more original than the former. Baby Driver uses old music to create something new. La La Land seeks to create something new as an homage to the old.
Baby Driver packs heart-stopping action amongst its toe-tapping soundtrack. I can’t call it a classic of the heist genre, if only because we see very little actual heisting. Baby Driver stands alone.