Vehicular ballet

Rated 3.0

In Willard Motley’s novel Knock on Any Door and the movie made from it, the motto was “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” In Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, it’s “Live young, drive fast and have a great-sounding playlist.” The movie may take its title from a near-forgotten Simon and Garfunkel song, but Wright’s inspiration was “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Wright says he visualized the song as background for a car chase back in 1995, and Baby Driver has been simmering ever since.

The movie’s many chases are the work of a driver code-named Baby (Ansel Elgort), who mans the getaway wheels for heist teams employed by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby lives and drives to the music streaming from his battery of iPods. The buds are seldom out of his ears—they alleviate the tinnitus that has plagued him ever since the accident in which his beloved mom and abusive dad were killed—but he misses nothing. He even parrots verbatim one of Doc’s complex briefings when a member of the team, aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), doubts him.

Baby has become indebted to Doc for reasons that Wright’s script glosses over in the interest of getting on with things. Where Baby acquired his steering-wheel wizardry, or how Doc learned of it, is also vague. The chases are the thing, and they’re terrific. Baby drives to music the way Gene Kelly used to dance to it—thrusting, twisting, leaping, lunging—and director Wright and editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss assemble these roaring ballets accordingly.

Baby’s impassivity masks his growing unease. “One more job and I’m out,” he tells Doc early on. “One more job and we’re square,” Doc responds. Baby doesn’t catch this hint that Doc isn’t about to let go of such an asset; other robbers may come and go, but not the getaway guy.

Doc’s leverage is young love. Baby strikes up a halting flirtation with Debora (Lily James), a waitress in the diner he frequents (and where, Wright hints, his mother once worked). When Baby tries to wash his hands of crime, Doc is firm: “That’s a cute girlfriend you’ve got. Let’s keep her that way.” But Baby senses that this next heist, with the trigger-happy Bats and the lovey-dovey team of Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm, Eiza González) is doomed to fail—and with it his hopes of joining Debora “driving west in a car I can’t afford with a plan I don’t have.”

Baby Driver shifts gears as deftly as does Baby himself, from rock ’n’ roll derby to profane comedy to goo-goo-eyes romance and back again. Elgort dances through it all with peach-faced aplomb; Hamm and Fox supply two tasty flavors of villainy, and Lily James still has one of the most radiant smiles in movie history. As the snide, insinuating Doc, Kevin Spacey—who does snide and insinuating better than any actor who ever lived—is right at home.

Baby Driver’s credits roll over that old Simon and Garfunkel song, and we leave the theater grinning, hearing the last line of its refrain: “I wonder how your engine feels.”