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Film review: ‘Baby Driver’ gets by on musical energy

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Baby Driver.

Three and a half stars

Baby Driver Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey. Directed by Edgar Wright. Rated R. Now playing citywide.

There isn’t anything in writer-director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver that quite lives up to the dazzling opening sequence, a propulsive car chase set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” In those opening minutes, the movie sets the tone for everything to follow, choreographing its elaborate action to the rhythms, harmonies and lyrics of the song, as main character Baby (Ansel Elgort) expertly evades the police while driving his crew to safety following a bank heist.

The plot of Baby Driver is nothing new: It’s the criminal with the heart of gold who wants to escape the underworld life following one final big job, but can’t break free from the dangerous people he works for. But the way that Wright tells that story is playful and virtuosic, making the movie into one long visual mixtape. It’s like a mediocre crime thriller crossed with several very good music videos.

The omnipresent music comes from Baby’s habit of constantly listening to music on his collection of old-school iPods, both to drown out the ringing in his ears from a childhood car accident (part of his requisite tragic backstory) and to provide a framework for his feats of automotive daring. Baby’s favorites range from classic rock to pop to jazz to indie to hip-hop, and Wright synchronizes especially remarkable action scenes to the aforementioned Blues Explosion song as well as rockabilly classic “Tequila” (with gunshots timed to drumbeats) and Young MC’s “Know How.” Wright has always had a flair for pop-culture mashups, and with Baby Driver he attempts to do for music geekery what his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World did for video gamers.

Scott Pilgrim backed up its reference-heavy style with a surprisingly layered romantic story, though, and the writing in Baby Driver is not nearly as strong, even if Wright crafts some funny bits of dialogue. Baby falls in love with waitress Debora (Lily James) essentially at first sight, and while the actors have nice chemistry, their love story is as loosely sketched as the platitudes in a throwaway pop song. That might be part of the point, but it makes the movie’s extended climax, with Baby and Debora in danger from crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his associates, hard to care much about. Elgort is a pouty blank slate, and James, who’s been a highlight of disposable Hollywood movies like Cinderella and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, plays more of a symbol than an actual character. Baby Driver is extraordinarily entertaining when it’s zipping along to its impeccable soundtrack, but there isn’t much going on behind the music.

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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