Monday, July 17, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Baby Driver

Baby Driver was written and directed by Edgar Wright.

Wright previously wrote and directed Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and The World's End. He co-wrote The Adventures Of Tintin with Joe Cornish and Steven Noffat (of Doctor Who fame!). He also co-wrote Ant-Man along with Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd.

Baby Driver is sort of a throwback to late 1990s gangster/action movies like Go, The Big Hit and The Way Of The Gun. Others have described it as Tarantino-esque, but I didn't get that impression at all.

Fair warning— for a movie called "Baby Driver," it doesn't contain much actual driving. Think Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, which generated similar complaints about its lack of vehicular action. If you're looking for a character-driven (heh) relationship drama, then Baby Driver's the film for you. If you're hankering for Fast & Furious-style car chases and non-stop action , then you're gonna have a bad time.

Oddly enough, unlike all of Wright's previous films, Baby Driver is not a comedy. It's a straight up action/drama, with a few slightly quirky elements thrown in here and there.

Contrary to most of the internet, I don't worship at the altar of Edgar Wright, as I think he's a very uneven and overrated talent. I LOVED his debut film 
Shaun Of The Dead, as it's one of my all-time favorite movies. Unfortunately Wright's output quickly went downhill from there (for me at least), as I found each successive film worse than the previous one. I was baffled by the popularity of Hot Fuzz, even after giving it the benefit of a second viewing. I wasn't a fan of Scott Pilgrim either, and didn't care for The World's End. Fans lamented the day Wright was fired from Ant-Man (for refusing to tie it to the Marvel Cinematic Universe), but I thought it was cause for celebration.

That's why Baby Driver is such a pleasant surprise, as Edgar Wright finally made a good (but not great) film 

Even more amazing is the fact that a decent movie like Baby Driver is distributed by Sony! Yes, Sony, the gold standard of movie studios (and my former employers!). Why, in just the past three years, they've produced such wonderful films as:

The Monuments Men • Robocop (2014)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 • 22 Jump Street • Think Like A Man Too
Sex Tape • The Equalizer • Fury • The Interview • Chappie
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 • Aloha • Pixels • Ricki and the Flash 
Hotel Transylvania 2 • The Walk • Goosebumps • Freaks of Nature 
Spectre • The Night Before • The 5th Wave • The Brothers Grimsby
Money Monster • Angry Birds • The Shallows • Ghostbusters 2016
Sausage Party • The Magnificent Seven • Inferno • Passengers
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter • Underworld: Blood Wars
Life • Smurfs: The Lost Village • Rough Night

That's quite the grim track record, making Baby Driver's success all the more surprising. I guess when you swing at enough pitches, you're bound to hit a homer now and then.

Critics and audiences are both absolutely in love with this movie, which genuinely mystifies me. I must have seen a different version of the film, because I honestly don't get all the praise. It's got some decent performances and there's one really good action scene at the beginning, but the overall storyline is one we've all seen a hundred times before. I'd call it watchable at best. 

So far the film's a modest hit, racking up $73 million here in the States against its $34 million budget. It's grossed $14 million overseas, for a worldwide total of $87 million. Those are decent numbers for a small film that premiered in the middle of Summer Blockbuster Season. Due to marketing, most films today need to gross twice their production budget just to break even. I doubt Baby Driver did much in the way of advertising, so I'm betting it's turned a decent profit for Sony.


The Plot:
A car parks across the street from a bank in Atlanta. Three criminals— Buddy (played by Jon Hamm), his wife Darling (played by Eiza Gonzalez) and Griff (played by John Bernthal)— run into the bank, while their getaway driver "Baby" (played by Ansel Elgort) waits outside. Baby calmly listens to music on his earbuds while he waits. The three crooks return with cases of loot and hurriedly pile into the car. Baby peels out, still jamming to his music. Several police cars pursue them, but Baby expertly performs a series of impressive driving maneuvers, easily losing them.

They return to the headquarters of Doc (played by Kevin Spacey), the mastermind behind the robbery. Baby brings back coffee for everyone, his earbuds still blaring. For some reason this annoys Griff, who asks why Baby has to constantly listen to music. Through the magic of expository dialogue, Doc explains that as a child, Baby was in a car wreck that killed his parents. As a result of the accident he has tinnitus, and listens to music to drown out the constant humming in his ears.

Doc divides the money among the crooks, and gives Baby his small cut. He tells Baby that after their next job they'll be square, as his debt to him will be paid off. Baby goes home to Joseph, the man who raised him after his parents died. Joseph's now an elderly deaf man confined to a wheelchair, so their roles have reversed, as Baby now takes care of him.

Baby stuffs his share of the stolen money into an impressive stash under a floorboard in the apartment, as Joseph watches. He signs to Baby that he knows he's involved in something shady and to be careful. Baby takes a mini-recorder from his pocket, which he uses to capture everyday conversations around him. He uses a sample of Griff's tirade earlier that day to compose a "song." We see he has hundreds of such tapes, including a special one labeled "Mom."

Later Baby goes to Bo's Diner, where he "meets cute" a young waitress named Debora (played by Lily James). They chat for a while and Baby secretly records their conversation. Later at home he turns Debora's sample into a song.

Doc calls Baby in for his "final" job, and introduces him to the new crew: Eddie No-Nose (played by Flea, of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame), JD (played by Lanny Joon) and Bats (played by Jamie Foxx). This time the target is an armored truck. Bats becomes angry with Baby because he listens to music the whole time Doc outlines the plan. He shuts up though when Baby's somehow able to recite their agenda word for word.

Baby drives the criminals to a bank, where they wait for the armored truck to arrive. Bats becomes incensed again when he sees that JD bought the wrong masks for them to wear during the robbery (Mike Myers from Austin Powers instead of Michael Myers from Halloween).

The three rob the armored truck, but things go south when Bats kills a guard. They run back to the car, and Baby, who's shaken by the murder, takes off. A marine witnesses the robbery, firing at the robbers as he uses his truck to block the getaway car. Baby somehow drives between a row of parked cars and a wall to escape. 

They make it to a highway, with the marine in pursuit. He forces the front of the getaway car under a semi truck, trapping it. Bats starts to shoot the marine, but Baby frees the car and drives off before he can take the shot. JD realizes he dropped his gun back at the bank. Back at Doc's hideout, Bats asks Baby if he deliberately stopped him from killing the marine. Baby says no, but Bats doesn't believe him.

Baby goes to the diner again to flirt with Debora. She jokingly says it's not fair that there are few if any songs about "Debbies," but thousands with the name "Baby" in them.

Later Baby meets with Doc to get his cut of the money. When he mentions they're even now, Doc laughs and says Baby's his good luck charm and he plans to keep on calling him. He orders Baby to dispose of a car, which he sees has JD's body in it. Apparently Doc wasn't happy that he lost his gun during the robbery.

Baby takes the car to a junkyard, where he flashes back to the accident that killed his parents and injured his ears. Baby tries to go straight by taking a job as a pizza delivery man, using his driving skills to impress the customers. He takes Debora out to a fancy restaurant, where he's interrupted by Doc, who wants him for another job. When Baby refuses, Doc threatens to harm Debora and Joseph. Baby grudgingly agrees to the job. He takes Debora home and they share their first kiss.

The next job is stealing blank money orders from a post office, and Doc sends Baby in to check out the security. While there, he interacts with a friendly teller (foreshadowing!). Later on, Baby calls Debora and says he wants the two of them to drive far away from Atlanta, someplace where Doc will never find them. Despite the fact that she's known him for less than a week, she agrees.

Doc gathers Buddy, Darling and Bats for the post office job. But first he sends them to buy guns from an arms dealer called The Butcher (inexplicably played by singer/songwriter Paul Williams). They arrive at a warehouse where they're met by The Butcher and his army of thugs. As they look over the guns, Bats notices the boxes say "APD" on the side (for Atlanta Police Department, I guess?) and realizes The Butcher's a cop. Bats shoots The Butcher dead, which causes a massive firefight. Doc's crew manages to kill all the undercover cops, but Darling's shot in the arm.

On the way back to Doc's, Bats says he's hungry and wants to stop at Bo's Diner (um... shouldn't they be getting medical treatment for Darling?). Baby doesn't want to stop, as he doesn't want Debora to see him with a bunch of criminals, plus he's afraid of what Bats might do to her. Bats insists though, and they all go in.

Debora waits on them, and luckily she's smart enough not to say anything to Baby. Bats senses something between the two, and asks Baby if he knows Debora. He lies and says no, so Bats pulls his gun on her. Baby grabs his hand and stops him. The crew leaves, and Baby slips Debora a note that reads, "Road Trip— 2 am." I guess Debora will automatically know where to meet him.

Back at Doc's, he asks how things went with The Butcher. Bats says he killed him and his men because they were all cops. Doc says he knows that, as they worked for him (!). Bats lies and says The Butcher fired on them first. Buddy and Darling also lie and back him up. Doc wants to call off the post office heist, but for some reason Baby tells him to go ahead with it.

Doc orders the crew to spend the night in his HQ. Baby tries to sneak out to meet Debora, but he's intercepted by Bats and Buddy. Bats grabs Baby's recorder and discovers he's been taping all their conversations (to turn into songs). This leads Bats to believe Baby's an informant, and he knocks him out.

Baby wakes up back at Doc's, and sees Bats apparently raided his apartment. He's sitting in Joseph's wheelchair, and there's a pile of Baby's tapes in the middle of the table. Doc asks Baby to explain the tapes, and fast. Baby plays one, and they all realize he's just making crappy techo songs from their conversations.

The next morning, Baby drives the crew to the post office. Buddy causes a distraction inside by pretending to take Darling hostage. Meanwhile, Bats sneaks in the back to steal the money orders. As Baby waits in the car, he sees the friendly teller from the previous day. He shakes his head to warn her not to go in. She runs off and comes back with a security guard, just as the crew approaches the car. Bats kills the guard and orders Baby to take off. He hesitates, until Bats points his shotgun at him. Baby floors it and deliberately rams into a truck in front of them, which causes a piece of rebar to crash through the windshield and impale Bats in the chest (!). They all jump out of the car as the cops arrive.

Baby runs through the city in an epic footchase scene. He eventually steals an old woman's car, but not before grabbing her purse from the front seat and tossing it to her (more foreshadowing!). He runs into Buddy and Darling, as they're all surrounded by cops. Darling fires at the cops and is killed. And enraged Buddy fires back, and in the confusion Baby gets away.

Baby returns to his apartment (which seems like the first place the cops would look) and finds Joseph on the floor where Bats dumped him. He grabs all his money from under the floorboard, stuffs it in Joseph's pockets and takes him to a nursing home.

He shows up at the diner to pick up Debora, but is shocked to see Buddy sitting at the counter, having apparently got away from the cops. When Buddy threatens Debora, Baby shoots him in the chest. He and Debora run from the diner and steal a car.

Baby drives to Doc's and begs for help. Doc tells him to get lost, as he's preparing to leave town. For some reason, when he sees Baby and Debora together he has a change of heart and agrees to help them. Just then more of The Butcher's men arrive. Doc gives Baby a bag of money and says he'll hold off the thugs long enough for the two lovebirds to get away. Doc's shot several times before killing The Butcher's men.

Suddenly Buddy arrives in a stolen cop car, and runs over Doc, killing him (!). Baby rams into Buddy's car, knocking it over the edge of the parking garage. It falls several hundred feet and explodes. Baby's sure that's the end of Buddy, but anyone who's ever seen a movie before knows that's not true. Sure enough, Buddy appears again like the killer in a slasher movie. He grabs ahold of Baby and fires his gun next to both of his ears, causing his tinnitus to go crazy and deafen him. He then goes after Debora, but Baby shoots him in the leg, causing him to topple over the ledge and fall onto his burning car, which explodes for good measure.

Cut to the next day, as Baby and Debora are heading for a new life on the West Coast. For some reason Debora's driving, and she stops when she sees a road block ahead. She wants to try and run it, but Baby stops her and turns himself in.

At Baby's trial, Debora, Joseph, the post office clerk and the purse lady all testify that Baby's a good kid who just made some bad choices (!). The judge sentences him to twenty five years, with the possibility of parole after five. Debora sends him postcards of the places they plan to go once he's out. Five year later Baby's released, and Debora's there waiting for him.

• The movie wastes no time as it jumps straight into the action with a lengthy and impressive old school car chase scene.

Baby's first getaway is downright awesome, as he effortless performs dozens of vehicular stunts, flying between cars and obstacles with inches to spare as he outwits the police.

Unfortunately that first action setpiece is the best one. Baby's next two getaways are nowhere near as much fun. He's almost caught on numerous occasions, and he continually smashes into cars, trucks and telephone poles before eventually escaping. For a movie that's ostensibly about a professional driver, these later stunts aren't very impressive. Heck, anyone could smash up their car during a getaway!

By the way, according to director Edgar Wright, the car chases were all filmed practically, with no CGI or green screen. That seems unbelievable in this day and age, but I guess we'll have to take his word for it.

• Edgar Wright dusts off two of his trademark directorial tricks and uses them again in Baby Driver.

Right after the first getaway, Baby exits Doc's HQ and sashays down the street to a coffee shop (to the tune of Harlem Shuffle), passing numerous extras along the way  He sweeps into the shop, picks up his order and dances his way back to HQ, all in one long, unbroken take.

Wright used this exact same "long take" shot TWICE in Shaun Of The Dead, as Shaun walks from his apartment to a shop and back, passing numerous extras along the way.

Later on when Baby and the crew meet with The Butcher, there's a violent shootout. Baby's got his ever-present earbuds in, and the gunshots are all timed to the beat of the music he's listening to.

Again, Wright used this same technique in Shaun Of The Dead, during the zombie shootout in the Winchester pub.

In the first scene of the movie, Baby walks down the street, into a coffee shop, buys several coffees and walks back— all in one continuous shot.

• Apparently Edgar Wright's a big fan of the Back To The Future films (but then who isn't?). Kevin Spacey's character's named "Doc." John Bernthal plays "Griff" (the name of Biff Tannen's grandson). Flea has a bit part in Baby Driver, and played "Needles" in Back To The Future II and III. And lastly, Doc mentions a previous caper called "The Spirit of '85," which was the year Back To The Future premiered.

• CJ Jones, who plays Baby's hearing-impaired foster father Joseph in the film, is deaf in real life.

• Doc uses a completely different crew for the first two robberies in the film. At one point he says he never works with the same team twice, with the exception of Baby.

Then in the very next scene, we see that his next crew is made up of members from Team #1 and #2.

I guess technically Doc is correct here, as this new team isn't exactly the same, but... it's still composed of previous members!

• Everyone and their dog has already pointed this out, but I noticed it right off so I'm joining in too. For much of the movie, Baby wears an odd jacket that looks very much Han Solo's iconic costume in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Actor Ansel Elgort was supposedly on the short list to play the lead in Disney's upcoming Young Han Solo film (whatever it's called), before they ultimately went with Alden Ehrenreich. Was Baby's costume choice just a coincidence? Homage? Or was this Edgar Wright's way of blasting Disney for not hiring Elgort?

• Speaking of Elgort, I'm not sure he was the best choice for Baby. Yes, I get that he's a damaged loner who rarely speaks or lets anyone get close to him. A role like that demands someone who can really emote— someone who can tell us what they're thinking with just their eyes. Unfortunately, Ansel Elgort is not that actor. He comes off as little more than a mannequin, and gives new meaning to the word "wooden."

• Lily James plays Debora, the friendly waitress at Bo's Diner. The second I saw her I honest to god gasped, as she looked exactly like Madchen Amick, who played waitress Shelly Johnson in Twin Peaks. In fact for a second I thought it WAS Madchen Amick there on the screen, until I realized she'd be close to fifty by now. It's an amazing resemblance!

• The biggest surprise in the film was cherubic singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams in a cameo role as ruthless crime lord The Butcher. Williams spent most of the 1970s constantly popping up on every single variety and talk show on TV, belting out We've Only Just Begun in his strangled, warbly voice. 

I'm assuming that the diminutive Williams' casting as a violent criminal in Baby Driver was meant ironically.

• At one point Baby flips through the TV channels in his apartment, and we see a brief shot from Disney/Pixar's Monsters Inc. Apparently it was a big deal to get permission to show footage from a Disney film in an R-rated movie. In fact Monsters Inc. director Pete Docter even gets a special thanks recognition in the end credits!

For some reason, in the third act Buddy suddenly transforms from a laid-back criminal into a slasher movie villain. Baby seemingly kills him at least twice, and each time he returns from the dead (just like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees) before he's finally put down for good.

I wonder... earlier in the film there's a Michael Myers Halloween reference. Was that some kind of weird foreshadowing of Buddy's storyline?

• Oddly enough there are actually two songs titled Baby Driver. One's by Paul Simon, and is featured during the end credits. There's also one by KISS, which is NOT used in the movie. 

Either Edgar Wright liked the Paul Simon song better, or Gene Simmons wanted way too much money to license the KISS one.

• As regular readers of my blog know all too well, I am very critical of modern movie posters. I hate the fact that illustrated posters have seemingly gone the way of the dodo, replaced by horrible Photoshopped montages.

That's why I'm happy to report that Baby Driver features an honest to goodness, actual ILLUSTRATED poster! And it's glorious! Take a moment to stare at this rare example of illustrated screen art, and soak it all in.

One tiny complaint about the poster— is Baby's 2006 Subaru WRX supposed to be going backwards? Based on the "speed lines," that's certainly how it looks. Speed lines generally flow away from a car, not toward it! Plus we can see the text on the "Downtown Atlanta" highway sign, something that wouldn't be possible if the car was coming at the viewer. 

It's certainly possible that the car's meant to be going backwards here, as Baby drives it that way several times in the film. I just thought I'd point it out.

There's actually a second illustrated Baby Driver poster as well. This one's got a nice retro vibe to it. I don't like it as much as the character poster, but the fact that it's been illustrated rather than Photoshopped elevates it quite a bit in my humble opinion. I wish more studios would give us posters like this.

Baby Driver is a competent little film that's long on character and drama, but short on vehicular action. It's also the best thing Edgar Wright's done in many a year. Somehow I doubt it'll have the rewatchability of Wright's Shaun Of The Dead. I wouldn't recommend rushing out to see it at the cineplex, but it's worth a look on home video. I give it a B-.

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