Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Baby Driver: What a ride!

Baby Driver (2017) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.17


Blend the hyper-driving acceleration of Gone in 60 Seconds with Quentin Tarantino’s bad-ass dark humor, add a touch of the most superbly choreographed music-and-motion sequences ever concocted for classic Hollywood musicals, and you’re getting close to this audacious cinematic experience.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, left) has spent years working off his unusual debt to Doc (Kevin
Spacey), motivated — in part — by the hope that, eventually, this servitude will end.
But will this urbane crime lord really be willing to part with such a valuable asset?
Because the result still must be filtered through the impertinent sensibilities of British writer/director Edgar Wright, he of the manic blend of thrills and whacked-out comedy found in his cult-classic “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End).

Baby Driver is no mere film; it’s a bold, edge-of-the-seat vision from an auteur who deftly, irreverently exploits the medium’s every aspect to the max. From the attention-grabbing prolog to the suspensefully exhilarating climax — not to mention one of the best aw-shucks Hollywood endings ever added as an epilog — Wright holds our attention to a degree most filmmakers can only dream about.

You dare not even breathe, at risk of missing something way-cool.

Not that you should worry about it, because everything about this flick is way-cool. Not to mention quite impressive, considering the way Wright slides from accelerated, throat-clutching intensity to larkish meet-cute romance — and back again — in the blink of an eye.

To cases:

Music means everything to Baby (Ansel Elgort), who developed a horrific case of tinnitus during a childhood accident, and drowns out the incessant whine by orchestrating every waking moment to paralyzingly loud music pumped into his brain, via the ubiquitous ear buds connected to one of a dozen iPods he carries at all times. Nor is he content to rely on the Top 40 power anthems of today and yesterday; he also mixes his own mash-ups of samples, beats and even offhand chatter captured via pocket digital recorders.

Aside from serving as the perpetual home-grown symphony to which he dances and sashays through even the most mundane activities — such as making lunch — this constant aural companion also propels Baby’s occasional occupation.

Some people drive. Baby drives.

A wayward, orphaned childhood spent boosting cars led to snatching the wrong vehicle, at the wrong time: one belonging to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), who couldn’t help admiring the adolescent lad’s chutzpah. But Doc also couldn’t forgive the disrespect, and — recognizing the kid’s behind-the-wheel moxie — apprenticed him as a go-to getaway driver.

Now, Baby having matured into a stoic twentysomething with plenty of attitude and confidence, he has become the ne plus ultra of getaway drivers: a meticulous tactician who maps out escape routes ahead of time, so that — once a given job goes down — he can haul ass to the beat of carefully selected tunes that translate into expertly timed hairpin turns, gear shifts and breathtaking evasive maneuvers.

This talent has allowed the Atlanta-based Doc to stage-manage an impressive streak of brazen daytime bank robberies, always with a different three-person crew, and with Baby waiting in the revved-up driver’s seat.

Wright opens his film with one such heist, and — let’s just say — the vehicular aftermath, as Baby evades a few dozen police cars, definitely captures our attention.

But that’s just for openers. Wright then astonishes in an entirely different way, when the very next scene — Baby being sent for coffee, while Doc and the others divide the take — turns into a jaw-dropping display of cheeky effervescence, as Baby hops, skips, jumps, sprints and strides in perfect time to his personal soundtrack, in what we gradually realize is an ever-lengthening single take ... back and forth along several city streets.

Dance films would kill for a segment half this stylish.

Right then, by sliding so cockily between two such smartly conceived extremes, Wright has our attention. Forever and always.

The adrenaline rush gets ever stronger, once we meet the grotesques hand-picked by Doc for these jobs: Tarantino-style nasties to the core. The aforementioned prolog heist involves scruffy mercenary Buddy (Jon Hamm), who can’t keep his hands off sexpot, lollypop-licking partner Darling (Eiza González); and the mean, confrontational Griff (Jon Bernthal).

Outrageous attire and appearances notwithstanding, they radiate danger; we instantly fear for the silent and apparently cowed Baby. But that’s deceptive; the kid holds his own, thanks to a sassy blend of attitude and aptitude. After all, nobody can argue with his talent behind the wheel.

On the home front, in between assignments, Baby shares his digs with surrogate father Joseph (CJ Jones), wheelchair-bound and deaf, but still nimble of mind and spirit. The two are mutually devoted, a bond that Wright deftly sketches with sensitivity and grace, and which Elgort and Jones portray with absolute conviction. We immediately fear for Joseph, because the intimacy of this relationship is wholly at odds with the scoundrels who populate Baby’s other life.

Our nervous sensibilities get stretched even further when Baby stumbles into a meet-cute moment with cute-as-a-button Debora (Lily James), a new waitress at the diner that he has made a daily ritual (the reason not to be disclosed here). They spark; they smolder: love at first sight, hastened by the wit and sparkling banter that too few films deliver these days.

But an actual relationship is a luxury Baby scarcely can afford, particularly when Doc summons him for another job. And this crew is dominated by the twitchy Bats (Jamie Foxx), an unstable psychopath with a casual propensity toward collateral civilian casualties, in direct violation of Doc’s “no unnecessary violence” mandate. Also along for the ride: the eternally dazed Eddie “No-Nose” (Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), who always seems one or two sentences behind any given conversation.

Neon signs blast in our brains: Things can only end badly.

Granted, all of this is a farcical exaggeration of anything remotely approaching reality, but that has been the hallmark of Wright’s films. The magic comes from the manner in which he turns his burlesque characters into people we genuinely care about, their baroque behavior notwithstanding.

Not to mention the cheeky, dark-dark-dark humor that also fuels this outlandish saga.

Elgort, who impressed so much in The Fault in Our Stars — and then wasted his time with the Divergent series — makes Baby a smoothly trendy, hip-hop antihero. Even at his most impassive, Elgort leaves no doubt about his character’s resolute morality and integrity. Baby is a victim of circumstance and a single unfortunate adolescent mistake, and we recognize his desire to escape.

Spacey has great fun with the urbane and smoothly polished Doc, whose sophisticated veneer is — by itself — a hilarious joke, amid the nasties with whom he surrounds himself. And yet, as often is the case with Spacey’s performances, surface civility — and that wintry smile — don’t quite conceal Doc’s lethal underbelly. Few actors can be so simultaneously charming and malevolent.

The British James, until recently delighting Downton Abbey fans as Lady Rose MacClare, positively sparkles as the sweet, kind-eyed Debora. She’s the iconic lovely that no mere mortal lad ever could hope to win, and yet James – armed with Wright’s scrumptious banter — brings Debora down to earth, making her vulnerable, perceptive, intelligent and just forlorn enough to be enticing.

How could Baby resist her? How can we?

Foxx radiates the wary, waiting intensity of a coiled rattlesnake; González is a sassy, salacious, tart-tongued bad girl to the core. Hamm makes Buddy an intriguing study: at times unexpectedly sympathetic toward Baby, and a kindred spirit when it comes to music. Then again, Hamm laces Buddy’s gaze with something ... quietly feral.

High-fives go to editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, who cut this super-charged roller coaster with an élan matched only by Wright’s similar flamboyance; Bill Pope’s cinematography is equally electrifying. Few crime thrillers would even consider involving a dance coach, but then nothing about this film is average; choreographers Ryan Heffington and Ryan Spencer also deserve enthusiastic kudos.

And goodness, then there’s the music: a wall-to-wall genre mash-up that runs from The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” and Focus’ “Hocus Pocus,” to The Commodores’ “Easy” and Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance,” to Carla Thomas “B-A-B-Y” and T. Rex’s “Debora,” along with dozens more. Not to mention a certain Simon and Garfunkel anthem.

Wright assembles all the pieces brilliantly, playing our hearts and minds with the precision that Baby employs while preparing his mix-tapes. “Baby Driver” is summer’s first surprise: an exhilarating event destined to make a fortune — both now and later, when it hits home video — because you’ll want to watch it over and over.

Like, wow.

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