'Baby Driver': An action movie for the ear-bud generation

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"BABY DRIVER": Jamie Foxx is Bats (front), with (rear, from left) Ansel Elgort as Baby, Eiza Gonzalez as Darling, and Jon Hamm as Buddy. (Photo: Wilson Webb / Sony Pictures)

For director Edgar Wright and his generation of ear-bud iPod people, life is a search for that magic moment when the playlist they’ve piped into their heads matches perfectly with the moment.

His thriller Baby Driver is for them – the story of a driving savant named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who can’t drive without music but who can do no wrong when it’s playing.

This has made him (sorry, Jason Statham) the world’s greatest getaway driver; he works to pay off a mysterious debt to a mysterious gangster (Kevin Spacey) by helping bank robbers  (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal ) evade the cops.

The crooks are caricatures of violent men — loud, bullying, quick to anger. Baby is the opposite — so quiet he’s thought to be mute. He annoys the older men by listening to music and drumming his fingers when details of complex robberies are discussed.

Bernthal’s lantern-jawed lunkhead wants to slug Baby for being detached and aloof, and the older you are, the more likely you are to sympathize with this impulse. Wright is on to something here — a generational divide, pitting the movie’s grizzled squares against the tethered-to-tech whiz kid whose apparent inattention plays here like the latest manifestation of cool rebellion.

True to cinematic tradition (Wright’s iconography is full of it), that rebellion is best expressed on the blacktop, and that’s where we experience the movie’s unique fusion of music and moving image. Wright secured the rights to the songs before he started production, then shot and edited the sequences to match the rhythm and energy of the tunes. The effect is often electrifying.

The music is eclectic, and so are the cars. Baby doesn’t have a signature ride — part of the fun here is that he can drive any car and drive it better than anybody else. One of Wright’s best bits has Baby handling a behemoth SUV while dueling a citizen/vigilante in a pickup truck.

Baby Driver is a characteristic Wright mash-up, mixing a fan geek’s love of gear and tunes and movies. There’s a cameo here for Walter Hill, who directed the 1978 film The Driver, a movie that has transfixed other directors — Wright, James Cameron, Michael Mann, Nicolas Refn. (Wright says The Driver is to cinema what the Velvet Underground is to music — not everybody was into the Velvet Underground when they were recording, but those who were formed their own bands.)

The movie is at a significant remove from reality and is at its most dreamlike when Baby opens up to the beautiful waitress at the local diner (Lily James) — an out-of-time establishment that’s in keeping with the strange mixture of uptempo contemporary style and Wright’s visual homage to the quintessential car movies of the 1970s.

The movie is a little too postured — James has one note to play and registers more an archetype of a diner dame than a real character. Ditto the gangsters — I wish Wright had given gun moll Eiza Gonzalez more to do than blow bubbles and play suggestively with a lollipop. Even Baby’s busy backstory threatens to make him a collection of quirky details.

But all that artifice is probably part of the point, best appreciated by Generation Ear Bud and its preference for curated experiences.

On that note, I wondered how far Wright would take his 1970s homage. When Baby faces down a police barricade, Vanishing Point flashed through my mind, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.

But that heart-stopping pause is like the hiccup of an old eight track. The movie and Wright’s natural buoyancy return after a beat, and the beat goes on.

Baby Driver

Directed by: Edgar Wright. With Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Lily James. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 90 minutes
Parent's guide: R (violence)
Playing at: area theaters