DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Since his 2004 hit "Shaun of the Dead," British director Edgar Wright has made a string of action-filled comedies rooted in different genres - among them, horror, sci-fi and buddy cop. His fifth feature is his car-chase movie. It's called "Baby Driver" and stars Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The main problem with modern action movies is bloat - too many jangly closeups, too many shots smashed together with too much noise, too many climaxes. What's missing is elegance - not a word you often associate with action. But think of the spacially brilliant crop-dusting sequence in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" or Walter Hill's staccato gang attacks in "The Warriors" or Brian De Palma's wickedly choreographed splatter-fest in "Scarface." Yes, even a guy getting shot full of holes can be elegant if it's filmed by someone who knows the difference between bludgeoning and bravura.
The 43-year-old English-born director Edgar Wright knows the difference. His latest film is a terrifically entertaining heist-thriller called "Baby Driver," named for a teenage getaway-car driver dubbed Baby. As played by Ansel Elgort, Baby is a beautifully stringy youth who wears earbuds, his noncommittal demeanor unnerving the more paranoid members of the crime gang with which he works. It's one gang, but members come and go, as in a repertory company all under the direction of a man called Doc played with icy precision by Kevin Spacey. Only a colorful actor could make colorlessness so threatening.
Baby, it turns out, is in debt to Doc for past indiscretions. Driving getaway cars is how he's settling his tab. Wright has said in interviews that he doesn't care for the green-screen, computer-generated unreality of other car-chase movies. He's too diplomatic to say the words fast or furious. In "Baby Driver," actual drivers actually drive. The first getaway, set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," is stupendous, a triumph for the character and director. Watch how the car glides in and out of traffic with geometrical genius, now moving against the flow, now with it, swapping places with light-colored cars and finally easing into the slipstream.
The problem with computer effects is they make miracles - say, cars flying through the air, turning somersaults - look cheap. "Baby Driver" isn't exactly gritty realism, but the action has weight. The characters aren't realistic, either. They're archetypes, which are like stereotypes with a pedigree. But Wright gives them vivid inner lives. Elgort's Baby might look like one of those remote, existential action-heroes - God's loneliest men. But his blankness turns out to be self-defense. And the music on his headphones simultaneously takes him out of the world and grounds him, giving his driving an infectious backbeat, as Debora, the diner waitress he falls for, Lily James also has a musical presence - light and lilting.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY DRIVER")
LILY JAMES: (As Debora) So you're just starting your day, or did you just get off?
ANSEL ELGORT: (As Baby) Oh, I don't know if I ever get off. They call. I go, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE VIBRATING)
JAMES: (As Debora) So what is it you do?
ELGORT: (As Baby) I'm a driver.
JAMES: (As Debora) Oh, like a chauffeur. You drive around important people.
ELGORT: (As Baby) I guess I do.
JAMES: (As Debora) Anyone I'd know?
ELGORT: (As Baby) I hope not.
JAMES: (As Debora) Well, aren't you mysterious?
ELGORT: (As Baby) Maybe.
JAMES: (As Debora) Maybe (laughter). So when was the last time you hit the road just for fun?
ELGORT: (As Baby) Yesterday.
JAMES: (As Debora) I'm jealous. Sometimes all I want to do is head west on 20 in a car I can't afford with a plan I don't have - just me, my music, and the road.
ELGORT: (As Baby) I'd like that, too.
EDELSTEIN: "Baby Driver" hangs on to its romanticism, its sense of openness even when the blood hits the fan, which it must since this is a fairly straightforward genre movie. Jamie Foxx plays a guy called Bats, who psyches himself up for each robbery by repeating that he's taking back something that was taken from him. It's an entitled psycho's mantra. It justifies any kind of violence. As another gang member, a former Wall Streeter who slid into drug abuse, Jon Hamm seems amiable at first. But as he drapes himself over his girlfriend and fellow bandit played by Eiza Gonzalez, you can pick up his creepy, decadent vibes. Yeah, there will be blood.
But Edgar Wright has more peripheral vision than most genre directors. His "Shaun Of The Dead," for example, wasn't a satire of zombie movies. It used zombie-movie tropes to satirize a strain of repressive English provincialism. In the same way, "Baby Driver" uses heist conventions to show how people can get boxed into corners by circumstances and bad choices and how they can devise a route out however twisty and obstacle-strewn that route might be. With a soundtrack like this, it's a joy ride.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTHA REEVES AND THE VANDELLAS' "NOWHERE TO RUN")
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO RUN")
MARTHA REEVES AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. It's not love I'm running from. It's the heartbreak I know will come because I know you're no good for me. But you've become a part of me. Everywhere I go, your face I see. Every step I take, you take with me, yeah. Nowhere to run to, baby.
DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, Margaret Talbot talks about her "New Yorker" story "The Addicts Next Door" detailing the impact of the opioid epidemic in poor West Virginia towns. The state has the highest drug overdose death rate in the country - also actor Sam Elliott. If you don't know the name, you'll recognize his voice, his mustache and his memorable appearance as The Stranger in "The Big Lebowski." He stars in the new film "The Hero." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO RUN")
MARTHA REEVES AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from you, baby. Got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. I know you're no good for me, but you've become a part of me. How can I fight a lover that shouldn't be? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.