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‘Baby Driver’ has the (Edgar) Wright stuff

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Propulsive action movie easily the best of the summer so far

Few directors currently working are as overt about wearing their influences on their sleeve as Edgar Wright. Whether you’re looking at his TV work on “Spaced” or the stylized inventiveness of movies like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” or the Simon Pegg/Nick Fogg-driven Cornetto Trilogy (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”), it’s pretty easy to spot the entertainments – and makers of those entertainments – that inspire his work.

But what if he were to reign in his legendarily acute satiric eye? What if he were to play it straight – or at least, straight for Edgar Wright?

Well, then you get “Baby Driver,” which is not only far and away the best movie of the summer, but fits easily among the best movies of 2017, period. The film is driven by exceptional performances, dynamic action sequences and one of the best, most immersive movie soundtracks of the 21st century.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, “Allegiant”) is an unusual young man. He works as a getaway driver for jobs planned by enigmatic mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey, TV’s “House of Cards”); thanks to a childhood auto accident, he suffers from tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that can only be subverted by music. Baby is the best, but only if he can have access to music from one of his seemingly unending supply of iPods.

Baby wants out of this life; he’s just a few jobs away from paying off a debt he’s owed to Doc since an unfortunate teenage indiscretion. And when he meets Debora (Lily James, “The Exception”), a waitress at the diner that he frequents, he finds himself with another reason to leave his driving days behind.

But things are never that simple. In a world with an assortment of criminal lowlifes cycling into and out of the picture – thrill-seeking couple Buddy (Jon Hamm, “Marjorie Prime”) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, TV’s “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series”), hardnosed thief Griff (Jon Bernthal, “The Accountant”), gangster sociopath Bats (Jamie Foxx, “Sleepless”) – it’s impossible to know who you can trust. The only time that Baby feels in control is when he’s behind the wheel with the perfect song in his ears and flashing police lights left ever smaller and smaller in the rearview.

And when the time comes, when plans crumble and people he loves are in danger, his only road to salvation is one that he alone can drive.

I’ll admit to walking into this movie with expectations that were probably unfair. I loved what I had seen from the trailers. I’m an admirer of just about everything Wright has ever done. The cast looked excellent and early whispers had high praise for the action and the music. So I expected this movie to be really good.

Turns out, it was far better than I could have imagined.

From an opening sequence that was as inventive and visually surprising as anything you’ll see at the movies this year to a high-octane cavalcade of breathtaking and adrenaline-jammed driving sequences to a collection of talented performers leaning into Wright’s sharp-witted dialogue to a flood of stunning screen pictures to … well, you get the idea.

And that doesn’t even take into account the music. Wright has always had a nigh-mystical understanding of the importance of music, but he’s never used it as so fundamental a building block as he does here. There are some 30 songs on this soundtrack, each one of them specifically chosen to impact the action in a particular fashion. In many ways – the best possible ways – “Baby Driver” has the feel of an extended music video; it has that kind of kinetic brightness.

Wright’s script has much the same combination of quick wit and pop culture pastiche that has fueled his previous work, but here, he has dialed back the overtly satiric elements and played it straight. The end result is a movie that has the same joyful cinematic soul as Wright’s other films while still serving as a beautifully-executed piece of genre fare.

The performances are exceptional. This could be the role that turns Elgort into a star; he generates a quiet intensity that is incredibly magnetic. His dance background is apparent and utilized to great effect by Wright; there are some physical moments that are mesmerizing in their fluidity. James proves a capable co-star; the dynamic between she and Elgort burns with a heat that is both impassioned and innocent. Spacey is pretty obviously having a delightful time; Doc is the kind of charming, intelligent maybe-psycho that Spacey excels in creating. Hamm, Gonzalez, Bernthal – all do a great job in eliciting the proper tone. Foxx is trying a bit too hard, but he finds the sweet spot and lands hard when it matters.

In many ways, “Baby Driver” elicits comparisons to early Tarantino. The film has the same manic energy, the same embrace of offbeat criminality, the same deluge of homage; Wright doesn’t fetishize violence like Tarantino and has a much better eye for up-tempo action, but tonally, there are a lot of similarities. Basically, both men’s films give off not just a sense of how much their maker loves movies, but also of the particular types of movie that he loves.

This film is smart, sharp and funny – the sort of cinematic experience you don’t necessarily expect to get in the current summer blockbuster climate. No matter how good you think it’s going to be, it’s almost certainly better than that. In the race for Best Movie of 2017, “Baby Driver” may have just taken the lead.

[5 out of 5] 

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