It’s much harder to make an action film today. Not only might you have to compete with the tectonic plates of the Earth being upturned by whatever superhero/robot/monster/weird mix of three in a visual rain of CGI, but you also have to deal with audiences who are far more cynical and far more media literate than ever before. You can’t get away with half of the culturally offensive stereotypes, cheap sexual pandering and relentless bullet violence that filled the action film genre from its more recent generations. To make action films now, you either have to have a lot of money or you have to be smart.
Edgar Wright managed to get both, and came out with one of the most thrilling action films in a long time.
Baby Driver (2017, Dir. Edgar Wright) is the story of a getaway driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is just “one last job” from getting out of his profession, being able to leave behind the life of high-speed car chases and high-risk, high-stakes bank robberies. He’s got a heart of gold, but a head tainted with the mud of the criminal underworld. He’s unwilling to continue, and unwilling to risk getting out. In the mix of all this lays a girl he falls in love with, Debora (Lily James), his deaf adoptive father Joseph (CJ Jones), the cast of dangerous criminals he pulls jobs with (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González) and finally his employer/Machiavellian father figure Doc (Kevin Spacey). With all those elements in the pot boiling, it’s only a matter of time before the tension spills out into explosions.
Not literal explosions though. In fact I’m pretty sure only one actual explosion occurs, a visual note to mark off the film’s nail-biting climax. A pretty low number for a modern-day action film, but what it’s replaced by is unbelievably tight, kinetic car chases and character conflicts. The film draws from that incredible 70s tradition of tense, expertly framed sequences of drawn out games of traffic cat and mouse, as Baby spends most of the film swerving and skidding various cars through the sunlit streets of Atlanta, and goddamn are these well shot. They pulse with energy and keep the action focused into such an intense quality, the film races by. Talk of him meeting with George Miller surfaced awhile ago, and it’s not hard to see the DNA of that specific brand of visceral car chase energy.
When the film is not wrapped up with doing it’s fierce physical car chases, it’s embroiled in Baby’s life. There’s no filler to him, and as Guillermo Del Toro described it recently, it’s a fable. It’s world isn’t a reality close to ours, filled with vibrant and bold colours and archetypes rather than complex three-dimensional characters. But doing this isolates the film’s purity, as these larger than life symbols constantly negotiate each other, some like Baby who do it carefully and earnestly, others like Bats (Jamie Foxx) who negotiate that world with extreme violence. The characters clash with the world, and they clash with each other, and they clash with themselves. Wright’s script really stuns in its expert handling of meshing these characters together, and making sure they stay believable. Especially for a writer-director so renowned for his irony and comedy, it’s impressive to see the restraint on show to keep this film serious and simple. It’s not trying to take the piss out of itself, it really is an action film with great characters.
Of course, its technical choices ripple across the whole of the film’s surface and it would be a disservice not to mention them. First and foremost is its sound, both its sound mixing and soundtrack. The soundtrack is the shining jewel in the film’s crown, weaved impeccably well through Baby listening to his iPod in near constant fashion throughout the entire film. The music video generation bleeds through here, as the editing and even the gunshots on-screen are perfectly synced to keep in time with the music. This is that ballet of violence that lies in the same DNA as Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo), that choreography of action into an order which is just so exhilarating to watch.
You could have all these elements, the great characters and exhilarating soundtrack with the expertly filmed car chase sequences, and you could still end up with a film getting out of control, still end up with a film that doesn’t work and falls apart. It takes the work of a great director to unify individual great elements. Wright does that, just by making sure the audience stand alongside Baby. He cares for his adoptive father. He lost his parents in an accident he didn’t cause. He’s not superhumanly confident or a badass untroubled by anything with only a catchphrase. There’s moments of awkwardness, of vulnerability, of joy and sadness and anger and frustration. He’s a very human protagonist, one who tries to do the right thing and if he can’t do that at least the best thing. And his obsessive, nerdy traits stand alongside his cool chic, his sunglasses and clothes. Wright is in the tradition of a long line directors who are movie nerds, and the key word in there is nerd. It’s a film made by a human, one who obsessively loves the medium he works in. It only makes sense that Baby would share that same obsessive love.
People move in the world of Baby Driver. People sing (or rather sing-a-long) and dance and love and fight and kill and do everything in between. It’s just so good to see that frenetic human motion scored by such good music.
Oh yeah, and they drive a lot.
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