Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" Bears Forgettable Fun

Blessed be any filmmaker who hits the scene with a trio of features as potent as “Shaun Of The Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” Each of Edgar Wright’s first three films was and remains a unicorn of filmmaking prowess, working across multiple genres to equally emotional and kinematic effect. To early Wright adopters, this writer included, it wasn’t of a question of if the Briton would take over the world, but when. 2013’s “The World’s End” wasn’t the knighting ceremony many were pining for; merely an acceptable diversion on the way to Wright’s inevitable ubiquity. He was about to be everywhere. Marvel’s “Ant-Man” was up next.

And then it wasn’t.

Just two months after the director walked away from his longtime superhero passion project over creative differences – Wright has never seemed one for filmmaking by committee – he announced his next film: An original heist movie powered by a pulsing soundtrack. It sounded too good to be true.

In the context of Edgar Wright’s mostly mind-blowing filmography, it was.

For its first thirty minutes or so, “Baby Driver” is the car chase rhapsody Wright fans have waited three years for; alternating shots of nitrous to the heart and gasoline fumes to the olfactory bulb. Ansel Elgort’s title character, truly named Baby, is an idyllic vessel through which to deliver automotive-based thrills: A softly charming young man on the Autism spectrum who can drive. Similarities to Ryan Gosling’s character in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s “Drive” abound, but Baby is his own brand of cool customer.

More buoyant than brooding, this “Mozart in a go-kart” is Atlanta’s – if not the United States’ – premier getaway driver, arranging his powerslides to the steady stream of tunes flowing from his iPod. His ceaseless soundtracking (there are only a few minutes of the film without music) also helps to drown out the ringing in his ears (tinnitus) that stems from a childhood tragedy. If there were ever a movie criminal to root for, it’s Baby, even more so when he threatens to break out of his shell with a dance-y sidewalk saunter. Due credit to Elgort (“The Fault In Our Stars”), who’s terrific.

Kevin Spacey plays the boisterous and brutal Doc, a local kingpin who repeatedly blackmails Baby into service. Thugs cycle in and out of Doc’s four-person crew, but Baby is the constant, a one-man rhythm section keeping his bank-robbing band in time. Of the toughs that appear and reappear, only Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx) are give anything to do. Each is his own kind of loose cannon, archetypal thieves caught off guard by Baby’s superhuman talents and unassuming appeal. The great Jon Bernthal (“Fury”) is sadly frittered away as a bank robber who barely figures into the movie.

Initially there’s an arc, albeit a familiar one, to Baby’s story: Reluctant bad boy meets a cute waitress named Debora (Lily James) and pledges a better life for the both of them, planning to get out after the proverbial “one last score.” Count Baby’s kindly father figure Joseph (CJ Jones) in as a benefactor of Baby’s new leaf. It’s a dusty old story, but it’s fine for the purposes of Wright’s high concept – until the story stops at the hour mark and the movie keeps going. And going.

There’s scarcely a beat in the second half of the film worth remembering, drowned out by meaningless gunfire and another listless big screen turn from Jon Hamm, great television star, vexing movie star. What began as a romp comes up decidedly short in the car chase department with Wright insisting on a dreadfully traditional denouement that might have turned his overly familiar narrative on its head. Instead, it comes off like an afterthought pinned on an afterthought, italicizing the narrative unimagination that permeates the back half of the film.

But Wright on his worst day is more talented than 99% of filmmakers at their best, and portions of “Baby Driver” demand to be seen in the biggest and loudest theater possible. If there’s value in seeing Edgar Wright the director lap Edgar Wright the writer, it’s in seeing substance so wondrously sacrificed for his most accessible film to date, one that won’t deliver him to the promised land of household-name status but should inch him ever closer. Shame about the price, though: put up against his earlier work, it wilts.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 28, 2017
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriter: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzales
MPAA Rating: R (for violence and language throughout)