With that out of the way, let’s unpack a little more. Written and directed by the brain that gave us Spaced, Shaun of the Dead (and the rest of the Cornetto trilogy), and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the film is a heist caper that focuses on the role of the getaway driver—the titular Baby, played by Ansel Elgort. Orphaned at a young age, he learned to boost cars and drive them with no small measure of skill. But one day he stole the wrong car, one belonging to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey); one carrying a rather valuable cargo that left Baby in hock and working heists to pay off his debt.
Baby is an unlikely member of Doc’s constantly rotating crew of tooled-up robbers, one the others (including memorable roles from Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm) don’t exactly trust. He’s a quiet chap, eyes hidden behind dollar-store sunglasses, white Apple earbuds almost permanently affixed to his ears. The reason for the latter is a case of tinnitus—the result of the same car crash that orphaned him—and also the excuse for the movie’s relentless, deep-cut soundtrack. But despite his youthful looks and semi-detached presence in the briefings, it quickly becomes clear there’s no one else you’d rather have behind the wheel.
The plot is one most of us have seen before: the reluctant criminal has one last score to pull off before he and his new-found love (Debora, played by Lily James) can hit the road and disappear into the sunset. So far, so conventional. But this is an Edgar Wright joint, and fans of his work will know the British director has a unique take on things. The car chases—particularly the one co-starring a bright red 2006 Subaru WRX (the last of the good ones, IMO)—are visceral, real in a way that massive blockbusters full of post-production computer augmentation can’t quite manage. It’s not quite a true petrolhead movie—not like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans—but it’s one that probably deserves a place in the pantheon alongside such fare as Ronin or Bullitt.
It’s a movie to listen to as much as to watch
But if the cars alone don’t really rise to the level of Ars Technica obsession, Baby’s music habit probably does. You see, the kid lives off the grid; there’s no smartphone, no laptop, but plenty of vinyl and a delightfully old-school way of making mix tapes, including a hacked-together way of scratching samples on a hacked-together scrub board. When he’s not mixing, he spends his time drowning out the tinnitus buzz with rare groove vinyl in the company of (deaf) foster dad Joseph (played by CJ Jones). But it’s his iPod habit that will stand out to the tech crowd. A flashback shows him unboxing his first iPod back in happier times, and we see the battered and broken white mp3 player is still in his possession years later. Then there are the others; a bedazzled iPod mini. A black iPod classic. There’s even one of those U2 iPods with the red scroll wheel at one point. No Zunes, though.
As mentioned, the iPod conceit is a handy way for Wright to infuse the film with its soundtrack, which is as much a character of the film as its human actors, the cars, or the city of Atlanta. Wright has spoken about how the music for the first scene—Bellbottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion—captivated him back in the early 1990s, lodging the idea that it needed a car chase to accompany it. But from there it takes us all over the place. The Beach Boys. The Commodores. T. Rex. Young MC. Simon and Garfunkel. And so on. In some ways the eclecticism on display reminds me a lot of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which is no bad thing. But unlike that film, the music actually gets discussed by the characters; songs that make you call off a job, songs that make you want to drive really fast, songs that have your name in them that you want to sing on road trips. Oh, and did I mention that Kid Koala provided some tracks?
I shan’t reveal any more of the plot, but let’s say there are car chases, gunfights, car chases with gunfights, foot chases, and punchy script with enough humor to counter the rough stuff. There’s some rather sweet falling in love stuff—although generally the movie gives its female cast little to do—and Jon Hamm puts in a wonderful performance that’s just this side of scenery-chewing. Just one word of caution: if you drive to the cinema, try not to repeat anything from the film on your way home, please.