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'Baby Driver' literally turns heist movie genre on its ear, set to slick soundtrack

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for heist arranger Doc (Kevin Spacey). Plagued by tinnitus, Baby tunes out his distracting “hum in the drum” by listening to music while he drives.
Sony Pictures

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for heist arranger Doc (Kevin Spacey). Plagued by tinnitus, Baby tunes out his distracting “hum in the drum” by listening to music while he drives. Sony Pictures

Buckle up for Baby Driver, a movie so full throttle cool that you want to fist bump the screen. Style is the substance of Edgar Wright's inventive heist flick, a fresh, masterful synching of music and getaway mayhem, as if La La Land's traffic jam was moving, armed and dangerous.

Everything moves to the beat, even beatdowns. Car chases become interpretive dances of destruction, drums and bullets pound staccato in tandem. Wright takes music video literalization to breathtaking heights. Baby Driver doesn't operate from its hero's point of view but rather his point of hearing, essentially the same thing. Wright's ingenious approach literally turns the genre on its ear.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for a heist arranger named Doc (Kevin Spacey), his "lucky charm," the only guy Doc works with more than once. Baby is terrific at what he does, if unorthodox about it. Plagued by tinnitus, Baby tunes out his distracting "hum in the drum" with ear buds hooked to iPods loaded with killer tracks timed to driving assignments and daily activities.

Baby Driver would be merely eccentric without the precision Wright, cinematographer Bill Pope and editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss bring to the aural-action conceit. They're all-in from the opening shots of Baby waiting for robbers in rhythm with Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, their movie growing more irresistible by the second. The song, a collision of metal guitar and violins, becomes a note-for-note soundtrack to tire-squealing survival, too fast, too furious to peel your eyes away.

No time to catch our breath before Baby's bopping down the street over opening credits to Bob and Earl's original Harlem Shuffle, not the Stones'. Baby's light on his feet except on the gas pedal, Pope's camera tracking Elgort's street stride dance to music only he and we hear. He's picking up coffees for Doc and the gang, needing no caffeine himself. Two scenes and you're in love with this character, his milieu and Wright's energetic vibe.

Doc has another job for Baby, an armored car robbery with a lowlife crew led by hot-headed Bats (Jamie Foxx). He doesn't trust Baby's silent immersion in music, although Buddy (Jon Hamm at his scuzziest) and Darling (Eiza González) don't mind. Baby expects this to be his last drive, paying off a debt to Doc. That's what he tells his deaf guardian, Joseph (C.J. Jones), in sign language, and new crush Deborah (Lily James), a diner waiter on Baby's musical wavelength.

On rare occasions when Baby Driver idles, it's in a romantic gear. Despite his occupation, Baby and Deborah are innocents in love amid eloquently profane criminal circumstances, like Clarence and Alabama in True Romance, a movie this one's rush often feels like. Baby and Deborah deserve her dream of an escape west "with a car I can't afford and a plan I don't have" but there's no guarantee in this bloody, breakneck world.

For every Beck, Sam & Dave or Carla Thomas ballad this couple needs, there's the Damned, Bongolia and Blur for Baby's getaway drives, timed to each maneuver including a nifty drift to flip the script on spike strips. Hocus Pocus by Focus is music to firefight by. Dave Brubeck drowns out Doc's layout of the robbery plan, an homage to and improvement upon a cliche. When the scheme hits a glitch, so will Baby's mix.

On the other hand, Wright's scheme comes off without a hitch, pumping life into another stale genre after he did it for zombies (Shaun of the Dead), buddy-cops (Hot Fuzz) and alien invasions (The World's End). Baby Driver tops them all, a rabid puppy of a movie with a slot on my 10 best movies of of 2017 list.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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Baby Driver

Director: Edgar Wright

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, CJ Jones, Jon Bernthal, Flea, Paul Williams

Screenplay: Edgar Wright

Rating: R; violence, strong profanity

Running time: 113 min.

Grade: A

'Baby Driver' literally turns heist movie genre on its ear, set to slick soundtrack 06/26/17 [Last modified: Friday, June 23, 2017 5:31pm]
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