Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is a fresh, funny spin on the classic heist flick – first-look review

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Ansel Elgort in 'Baby Driver'
Ansel Elgort in 'Baby Driver'

Music is not merely central to Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s new comedy-action-romance, but the skeleton upon which it is constructed. The British writer-director would not sit down to create a scene until he had found the perfect track for it, then building the action and dialogue to fit perfectly with the tempo and timings. The result is a fresh, funny spin on the classic heist flick, a crime caper that feels like a musical, but is mercifully free of the earnestness that has made La La Land such a lightening rod. 

The story is told through the eyes, and, most importantly, the ears of Baby (Ansel Elgort) the youthful getaway driver who relies on a pulsating beat in order to perform. Working behind the wheel to pay off a debt to Kevin Spacey’s snarky, self-satisfied crime boss Doc, Baby is a young man of few words but an extensive array of Ipods and sunglasses.

Like Ryan Gosling in Drive, he telegraphs most of what he needs to with his eyes. Flashbacks reveal a childhood accident which has left him with severe tinnitus, and he uses music to drown out the constant ringing, as well as to "help him move".   

In company, Baby is reserved and often wordless: at home, he cares for his deaf and aging foster father, Joe (CJ Jones, a real-life deaf stand-up comedian), and at work, is secretly recording the conversations of his criminal colleagues to sample and loop into remixes back in his amateur sound studio. 

The star of the teen blockbuster Divergent series and The Fault In our Stars, Elgort is an inspired lead - with a background in musical theatre and a sideline as a DJ, he brings to the screen a slick, physical synchronicity with the eclectic, high-energy soundtrack ranging from Queen to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Young MC.

Due for general release in August, Baby Driver had its world premiere this weekend, appropriately enough, at SXSW in Austin, Texas, a festival of both music and film. Wright’s fifth film, it is his first solo project as writer and director, and is set and filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, a city with the wide expanses of freeway demanded by the adrenalin-fuelled high-speed chases.

Though full of the rapid-fire wit one would expect from the creator of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, with comic menace from a strong cast including Jon Hamm as the increasingly psychotic Buddy, and Jamie Foxx as the volatile and unstable Bats, Baby Driver is a departure from Wright’s previous work in that it is not an out-and-out comedy.

He has described it as an homage to the "holy trinity" of Nineties heist films, Heat, Point Break and Reservoir Dogs, but there’s also the sweet, budding romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) – a waitress who is delightful, if a little underdeveloped as a character – played out in a the classic American movie environs of a diner and a laundromat. And Wright’s lifelong obsession with the horror genre is very much in evidence too; along with shoot-outs, there are satisfyingly gruesome splattings and squashings, and several gloriously surreal, gasp-inducing deaths. 

Wright dreamt up the basic premise for Baby Driver in his bedroom 22 years ago (incidentally, around that time that his young leading man was being born), while listening to Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blue Explosion – a key track in the film – on repeat. He road-tested the set-up back in 2003, for a music video he directed for the band Mint Royale, starring a then-unknown Noel Fielding. 

Maintaining that same intensity over two hours, as opposed to four minutes, is as ambitious as the bank jobs Doc masterminds for his stooges, but Wright pulls it off with impressive aplomb. To the strains of what will undoubtedly become the soundtrack of the summer, Baby Driver can grab the spoils and take a victory lap.