Brighton Rock. That’s the title of a 1974 song by Queen, and it tells you everything you need to about Edgar Wright’s newest film, “Baby Driver.” With its story of two hip, young lovers being pulled apart by social demands, and its manic, rock’n’roll uplift, it’s “Baby Driver” in a glam-rock nutshell. Much of the song is comprised of Queen guitarist Brian May’s awe-inspiring guitar solo, and much of “Baby Driver” amounts to writer-director Wright wailing away on a movie screen in lieu of a guitar.
Fittingly, Wright scores the film’s climactic final set piece to “Brighton Rock,” and it’s a sequence that elevates a very good film to a great one. “Baby Driver” isn’t a film that achieves the transcendent right away, instead building to it like a symphony. It’s a climax of such kinetic ecstasy that it feels like the entire film was an excuse to make these five minutes of movie heaven. And they’re five minutes that are worth the price of admission to see it on a big screen.
“Baby Driver” is about a driver. Named Baby. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an orphan whose parents were killed in a car accident that left him with a case of tinnitus, so he plays music from his iPod all day to drown out the perpetual hum in his ears. And the never-ending soundtrack makes him one of the best getaway drivers in the heist business, which is why Doc (Kevin Spacey) hires him for every job. One day, Baby meets Deborah (Lily James) and he starts to see a way out of the life of crime that’s beginning to weigh on his conscience. But of course, Doc won’t let Baby slip away so easily.
It’s a pretty been-there-done-that plot, but the film plays with its familiar premise to subvert the clichés and tropes of the gritty, bad-ass crime thriller. This is actually right in Wright’s wheelhouse. He’s already shown how adept he is at playful genre deconstruction with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But while those films played more as parody, “Baby Driver” is an earnest attempt at making the genuine article.
This time around, Wright’s making real-deal action thriller, but he’s smart enough to know that making a carbon copy of his inspirations won’t suffice. That would be lazily unoriginal, but it also wouldn’t gel with Wright’s style and sensibility. Films like “Bullitt,” “The French Connection,” and most importantly, “The Driver,” are all pessimistic, machismo drenched, noir films, with a shot of adrenaline and extra testosterone for good measure, and all are clear influences on “Baby Driver.” Wright clearly loves these films, but knows he’s not interested in square-jawed, gravel voiced loners take every opportunity to prove how well endowed they are.
Wright’s protagonist is literally named Baby and has a face to match. He stays quiet not because he’s putting on a stoically intimidating front, but because he feels ill at ease in the criminal underground he operates in. He’s hardly the ideal of muscular, five-o’-clock-shadow bearing manhood that most crime protagonists are. I certainly can’t picture Steve McQueen flamboyantly and unashamedly dancing down the street while singing along to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” can you? Wright is upending these tired, cynical tropes to improve upon them and get closer to the Platonic Ideal of an action movie than anyone has gotten. He shows how silly those older films are by providing a bright, buoyant, and more honest take on the same themes, with a protagonist that is unabashedly emotional and gentle, not hard and repressed.
Occasionally, Wright loses his self-awareness and slips into dull, romanticized imitation of the very styles he’s correcting. But he nearly always catches himself and course corrects. This is true of the filmmaking, too. Wright is a master of editing and camerawork that’s hyperactive yet tight and disciplined. It’s what makes him one of the best action and comedy directors in recent memory. Mostly, “Baby Driver” betters its predecessors and contemporaries by showing a firmer grasp of craft than they could ever even conceive of. But there are brief moments where Wright’s enthusiasm seems to overwhelm his precision and his frame becomes too chaotic and loses track of the balletic grace he’s going for . But these are brief blips on the radar in a refreshing celebration of movement and visual thrill.
It’s Wright’s third best film, behind “Hot Fuzz,” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.” He still has yet to top the salvo of visual wit, sonic bravura and wildly imaginative insight into the minds of young people that propels “Pilgrim,” but I’m overjoyed that “Baby Driver” exists and is such an encouraging success. It’s been a passion project swimming around in Wright’s head for twenty years, and it feels like with it, there’s an itch he’s finally scratched. I hope this liberates him and opens up new avenues for his artistry. “Baby Driver” was a great warm-up, but now that you’re done showing off, let’s see what you can really do, Edgar.
You know what? Who cares if it’s not perfect? Who cares if it’s cliché and loses the plot a little? Filmmakers and audiences need to see there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to make an action movie. It doesn’t have to be all grim nihilism and dark, macho fantasy. Movies can be joyful. Wright’s been proving that his entire career, and he’s just done it again. You can still be serious about the art form and not take yourself too seriously. “Baby Driver” is an expression of pure joy, and it’s reassuring to know there are still filmmakers committed to that. As Freddie Mercury sings in “Brighton Rock:” “It’s so good to know there’s still a little magic in the air.”