Car trouble

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is an action, heist, car-chase film that is said to reinvent the action, heist, car-chase film. But as you can’t have an action, heist, car-chase film without action, heists and car chases, you may wish to ask yourself: how much do I like action, heist, car-chase films in the first instance? And that’s the bottom line, I suppose.

This action, heist, car-chase film is also about the soundtrack, as the story is told through the… ears? of Baby (Ansel Elgort), a getaway driver who doesn’t just enjoy music, but needs it. He rarely takes his earbuds out. He can’t perform unless he’s listening to Blur, Beck, the Beach Boys, T. Rex, the Commodores. He has a back story: orphaned in a car crash, he’s suffered from tinnitus ever since, and only music can drown out the constant ringing. He is a good boy, we are given to understand, somewhat repetitively and heavy-handedly — he sure does love his deaf old foster father (CJ Jones) — who has fallen in with a bad lot. He owes a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), the crime kingpin who arranges the heists and puts the crews together.

The film opens with Baby parked outside a bank, listening to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘Bellbottoms’ as the bank is being robbed. When the gang jumps back into the car, he pumps up the volume and we’re ready for car chase no. 1. It’s an old-school car chase. No CGI. And it’s a humdinger. Tyres screech. Umpteen police cars are thwarted. But, again, you may want to ask yourself: how much do I like car chases in the first instance? And: is blaring pop music going to make it OK?

Narratively, it’s a bit of an old chestnut: Baby longs to leave the criminal fraternity but has One More Job to perform for Doc. He is introduced to the rest of the crew. That is, Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), all of whom are entirely unhinged, with a sadistic liking for casual violence, Tarantino-style. In the meantime, he falls for Debora, a woefully underwritten waitress. This is not a female-friendly film. Darling feels like The Woman You Have To Have These Days, Whether You Like It Or Not, while Debora, played by Lily James, serves little function beyond being pretty and innocent. She has no back story, no decent lines, no smarts. (She’s not even smart enough to spell her name properly; where’s your ‘h’, girl?) I would also add that of the 30 songs on the soundtrack, only four are performed by women, and most of those are rolled out during the soft, romantic scenes. (We couldn’t have had some Patti Smith? Blondie?) Or, to put it another way, this is 87 per cent male, aurally. And now I’ve forgotten the point I was trying to make, so I’ll just bail out here, and get down to it.

The conceit is the music, while nodding to the car chase as a cinematic form, with everything else ultimately falling by the wayside. Even the plot peters out after an hour, dwindling to a series of uninspired, drawn-out, conventional shoot-outs. It’s remarkably humourless, given this is Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). And there is no one to engage us emotionally. Foxx, Hamm and Spacey are so wilfully malevolent you can’t care about them, just as they don’t care about anyone else. We are not allowed much downtime with Baby. In one scene, he almost-dances down the street to ‘Easy Like Sunday Morning’, and that’s delightful, and I totally perked up. But that was that, and he is otherwise banal.

I would also say that this is a suck it up film. You just have to suck it up or you’ll go mad. Personally, I struggle to suck it up, so was always wondering: how did that character get from there to here? How come that character’s been shot multiple times but is still walking around? How come an old deaf fella was allowed to foster? I couldn’t even work out when it was set, time-wise. If it’s now, how come Baby hasn’t heard of Bluetooth headphones, and is still into cassette tapes? And if it’s not now, how come the latest Run the Jewels is on the soundtrack?

So, the car-chase movie reinvented? Maybe, but it just hasn’t been reinvented enough.

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