SXSW: “Baby Driver” thrills to the beat

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Photo Credit: Emmanuel Briseño | Daily Texan Staff

These things make a great car chase: good guys, bad guys, fast rides, close calls and clean getaways.

“Baby Driver” opens with all of these things as its titular character, a getaway driver codenamed Baby (Ansel Elgort), outmaneuvers scores of Atlanta cop cars and shuttles his bank-robbing companions to safety. Everyone takes their cut, and no one gets hurt. Baby’s boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), tells him he only has to work one last job before he’s free of the debt he owes.

But “Baby Driver” isn’t an ordinary blockbuster – it’s an Edgar Wright blockbuster. That means there’s a fresh vision driving this homage to 1970s car films, and that vision is action musical. Baby constantly blasts music in his earbuds to drown out the ringing in his head caused by a traumatic injury as a child, and spends his free time making mix tapes. Drawing from Baby’s love of music, Wright builds every action scene in “Baby Driver” around a song. Chases and fights move to the beat of energetic songs, gunshots match up with drums and electric guitar riffs, and Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” makes a welcome appearance during the film’s climax.

Wright’s involvement also means the flawlessly executed escape of the first sequence is the exception, not the norm. The rest of the movie strips the car chase of its fantasy elements and ups the ante with genuine consequences. During Baby’s intended last heist, a security guard dies, and he loses his groove and goes from dancing between cars to barreling through them. Once he thinks it’s over, he realizes that he isn’t as divorced from the damage he causes as he believed. Though “Baby Driver” tosses around plenty of comedy, it becomes a dark and intense picture.

After Baby’s last job, he thinks he can forge a new path for himself. The problem is he doesn’t know where to start. He does know, however, he wants a relationship with Debora (Lily James), a sweet waitress who shares Baby’s admiration for song, but just as their love grows, Doc ropes him back into the crime world.

For his next heist, Baby ends up working with three old colleagues: the hardcore Bats (Jamie Foxx), the sensual Darling (Eiza González), and the affable Buddy (Jon Hamm). Out of the team, Bats’ propensity for violence seems most poised to destroy their dynamic and get them killed. But it is Baby’s brewing doubts that really end up throwing a wrench in their plans. With only Debora help him and nowhere to hide, Baby is forced to run. Unfortunately for him, Buddy isn’t tolerant of traitors.

Ansel Elgort is perfectly cast as Baby. His youthful face makes him immediately look like he’s out of his depth among hardened criminals, but he’s also capable of looking tough when he needs to. He rocks a likable James Dean swagger that allows him to rival Foxx, Hamm, González and Spacey. They do their part in supporting him while earning their own moments. Only Hamm doesn’t get enough screen time, because he delivers such a menacing performance as the villain that deserved more attention.

“Baby Driver” burns brightest in its first and third acts, and it flickers in the second. Wright relies a little too heavily on coincidences to drive the plot forward, and while the narrative’s many elements successfully combine, the journey to the climax is occasionally clunky.

But unlike its wayward protagonist, “Baby Driver” knows what it wants to be. For that reason, it’s remarkable to watch Baby find the road he wants to travel down.

“Baby Driver”

Running Time: 115 minutes

Rating: NR

Score: 4/5 stars