This thrill-a-minute addition to the crime/action/thriller genre doesn’t exactly break the mold, but it’s fun. 1. A teenager as the getaway driver is novel. 2. The integration of music as one of the essential film elements is a killer. 3. The car chase scenes, right from the beginning, are delicious.
Baby (Ansel Elgort), an adolescent, lost his parents as a child in a car accident. He’s been raised by a deaf, wheelchair-bound foster father (CJ Jones). Boosting cars got him in a lot of trouble when he was younger. Especially when he robbed the auto of a crime-mastermind-kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey). Now Baby is Doc’s indentured getaway driver until he makes enough money to pay him back. Baby: “One more job and I’m done.”
Baby’s servitude means he comes into contact with reckless felons who rob banks in broad daylight and have no sensitivity towards the victims who get in their way: There’s the crime couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his Latina squeeze Darling (Eiza Gonzalez); Tatted up JD (Lanny Joon, Takers), who as Doc puts it, “Puts the Asian in invasion;” and a hardened crook with no allegiance to anyone, Bats (Jamie Foxx).
Without fail, once Baby is behind the wheel grooving to his tunes and using the beat as his rhythm, he evades cops and police cars, dodging in and out of traffic. Never been caught. Never lost a passenger. Bank heists aren’t his thing, but he’s stuck. The silver linings in his conscripted life are his love of music, cars, his foster dad and a waitress named Debora (Lily James, Cinderella) who has a smile that could launch a thousand ships.
British writer/director Edgar White (Shaun of the Dead), known for his whacked out humor, takes his shenanigans stateside. The result is an off-center, peculiar blend of odd characters living just above the gutter but well below normal humanity. He throws these dodgy sorts into abnormal situations, and when the chips are down and things go wrong, they kill each other. In the midst of all the mayhem is a kid who, no fault of his own, can’t catch a break until the love of his life walks up to his table to serve him coffee. Then he has hope and so does the audience.
The music is so integral to the main character, who has a pocket full of iPods, that guessing what song will play next becomes a job viewers and Pandora will thoroughly enjoy. Nothing wrong with a little Barry White, T. Rex, James Brown, Dave Brubeck, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and Carla Thomas wailing during a crime spree.
The car chase scenes are the guts of this oddball movie, and they don’t disappoint. The beginning credits finish, and before you can stick a key in a car door, Baby is driving like a daredevil through the streets of Atlanta. The first escape car is not a muscle car, or a Maserati. It’s a tiny red Subaru WRX. A suburban mom’s car! Yet he works the hand brake and accelerator like a nerd works a video game. Music is blasting in his ears. He displays a steely determination that is precocious and endearing. Baby isn’t old enough to have peach fuzz on his face; he is the antipathy of a jaded getaway driver, yet you believe he knows his stuff. Wright gets an A+ for the car chase scenes and creating this juvenile delinquent.
However, Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix) fail to give the footage an attractive look. Yes, there’s some swirling camerawork around the characters, a la La La Land, but it’s not terribly original. And what’s on view looks like it was shot with klieg lights, 100-watt bulbs or a smart phone. No shading, no allure, no style, no textures, no brilliant colors. Nothing.
The same can be said about the production design (Marcus Rowland) and art direction (Nigel Churcher and Justin O’Neal Miller). The film does not have a unique look, and considering its odd nature, that’s a lost opportunity. If Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), had made this film on the backstreets of London, he would have left the audience amazed by an impressive visual style. Fortunately editors Jonathan Amos (The Brothers Grimsby) and Paul Machliss keep the pace on cruise control. For one hour and 53 minutes the film never stalls.
Foxx is evil and nasty as Bats. You wouldn’t want him to date your daughter. Hamm is totally eccentric as Buddy, and with his Backstreet Boys haircut, he looks like he is having a devilish blast. Gonzalez is sexy and dangerous. Spacey makes his mark as the demon who orchestrates everything, though some may feel he is over acting. Lily James is sweet as the love interest.
Ansel Elgort, the teen sensation from the Divergent/Allegiant franchise, has upped his game. Baby is a refreshing turn for him. He’s laconic, yet emotional; likable, but rough around the edges. Thanks to this role, Elgort can look forward to a more diverse career. His fans, teens and twentysomethings, will be pleasantly surprised.
This is more than a regular crime/action/thriller. It’s high-octane.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.