In the bravura opening sequence to Edgar Wright’s best film in over a decade, the titular Baby Driver (Ansel Elgort) transports a party of bank robbers from the crime to a safe hideout. There is inevitable mayhem. But Baby is in control throughout. He appears to have scored reality to the beats of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
That band plays on his iPod (this is the first film to treat that item as vintage technology) while he crashes his way across freeways and through alleyways. Every swerve of the wheel seems part of a preordained plan.
Edgar directs as Baby drives. Since his influential Shaun of the Dead, the West Country film-maker has been imposing rigorous control on comic action. His kinetic pans are one trademark. His rapid montage is another. For the first 70 minutes or so, Wright is more rigorously in charge than ever before.
Baby Driver comes across like Grand Theft Auto (the game, not the film) as directed by Stanley Donen. It's that much fun. It has that much profundity.
You could call Baby Driver a musical. You could call it that because virtually every scene is choreographed to a cracking tune: Jonathan Richman, Dave Brubeck, T Rex, The Commodores. (In an apparent Easter Egg for older music lovers, the soundtrack juxtaposes the two biggest Dutch hits of the 1970s: Focus's Hocus Pocus and Golden Earring's Radar Love.)
A better reason to call Baby Driver a musical is that it moves and breathes so very like one. An early sashay down an Atlanta street has all the swish grace of Gene Kelly's American in Paris.
So much pre-determined style could become arch and grating. But it transpires that Wright is at his best when most being himself. A welcome stripping down has occurred since his last two projects. The overcomplicated plotting of the too-cute, too-smug Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is nowhere in evidence. The premature midlife crisis that coloured the insufferable The World's End seems to have been tidied away.
Baby Driver is not short of backstory – Baby's addiction to music stems from a need to overcome tinnitus – but the outer narrative is admirably unfussy. The protagonist owes money to a wry hoodlum (Kevin Spacey in third gear) and must complete a number of jobs before he is set free. His colleagues turn out to be worrisome in different ways: Jon Hamm is sleazy; Jamie Foxx is vengeful; Eiza González is volatile. In short, Wright's film, for most of its duration, finds a deliciously convoluted way of doing something very simple.
A cameo by Walter Hill inevitably points us to that director's timeless 1978 film The Driver. But, though the plots are similar, the style of Baby Driver could hardly be more different to that of Hill's sombre, enigmatic paean to Jean-Pierre Melville.
Wright's joint is hot, self-conscious and utterly hollow. Lily James, fine as the waitress Baby loves, is offered little more character than we find on the bones of cut-sequence victims in Grand Theft Auto. Elgort, a clever actor of the preppy school, makes an immaculate, pretty doll of the handsome hero.
For all its emotional aridity, Baby Driver is, while Wright imposes his will fully, an impressively slick and imaginative achievement. Listen for the nearly sub-sonic echoes of Baby's tinnitus that play when the music dies down. Observe the immaculate colour palette in every scene.
Unfortunately, in the final 20 minutes or so, the director’s hand slips off the tiller and the picture falls into more conventional schools of cinematic chaos. The Final Boss (in video game terms) is a bit of a bore and the climactic chase can’t quite equal the opening spectacular.
Still pretty spiffing.