Film after film, modern geek auteur Edgar Wright has examined through pure ironic comedy what it is that makes his favorite genres tick. Like an expert horologist fine-tuning an intricate system of gears, he’s taken his eyepiece to the likes of zombie cinema with Shaun of the Dead and Bayhem-fueled police action with Hot Fuzz. He’s dabbled in less hyper-focused satire with his other films; notably the third in that “Cornetto Trilogy,” the woefully underrated The World’s End. That film eschews the focused genre magnification of its predecessors in favor of a film focused on character, highlighting the true thread that makes those earlier satires so effective. World’s End is still full of comic energy and action-packed bombast, but what links it to its three-flavors brethren is the emotional connection it illustrates between the characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They struggle with real, human emotions.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wright’s other most notable work, similarly avoids any specific genre template (aside from perhaps coming-of-age film, but that’s a bit broad). Instead, it funnels a variety of pop cultural influences into a millennial fever-dream pastiche of video games and garage bands. It’s more founded on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original influences and experiences than it is Wright’s, but it showcases with previously unparalleled focus the horologist’s touch that defines his voice as a director. Like a punk-rock Street Fighter cuckoo clock, Scott Pilgrim flows effortlessly from Battle of the Bands to martial arts showcase, ticking away with Swiss precision and waves of aesthetic confidence. Still, it exists on a level of heightened style that might be impenetrable to some audiences, and it has the box office receipts (or lack thereof) to prove it.
Enter Baby Driver. Like an adrenaline shot to the rhythm centers of the brain, Wright’s latest feels like an elaborate mixtape crafted with passion to woo the heart of Cinema itself. Ansel Elgort dances through its opening sequences, iPod jockeying what must be a playlist on Wright’s own devices titled “Songs I would Rob a Bank To if I Were to Someday Rob a Bank” as the camera rocks back and forth like an invisible partner. From The French Connection to Monsters, Inc., the film exudes a palpable love of the medium, cut apart and placed together with such meticulous rhythm it feels like it can only have been done under a desk lamp with a magnifying glass and tweezers. To see this film on a proper screen with a theatrical sound system is absolutely sublime.
What I find particularly intriguing, though, is how Baby Driver feels like a return to focused genre filmmaking for Wright. Where the early “Cornetto” films are pitch-perfect satire, this film is dead serious in its intent. This is a genuine, honest-to-Mann heist thriller, with characters bandying about snappy dialog with names like Bats, Buddy, and Baby. It’s fun and peppy and full of swagger; and it knows exactly what it’s doing every step of the way. Every shot, be it gun or camera, is choreographed. Like any good mixtape, its pacing is carefully considered.
A prime example of how Wright plays with genre here is how he uses names. Everybody has jazzy code names to disguise their identities over the course of the film. Even Debora, Baby’s love interest, is wearing the wrong name tag when we meet her at the diner. Everybody, whether they mean to be or want to be, is a 100% genre archetype. Like any good heist thriller, however, things start going south. People die, characters we like are put in danger, and the stakes become more personal; more real. As this develops, we start learning their real names. In a tense diner scene, the exact point in the movie it becomes clear that she’s in danger, we see Debora wearing the right name tag. The movie is filled with fun details like this (lyrics printed on the wall during the opening credits, the intricacy of the shootouts, and Jon Bernthal’s last line are a genuine hoot; I hooted quietly to myself the second time I saw it), but it works throughout on its own merits as an action-packed crime thriller.
There’s heart in Baby Driver, but more than even the satires of the “Three Flavors Cornetto,” it feels like pure genre exercise. Even Baby’s heartstring-plucking backstory feels like another note in this particular genre symphony, adding just the right color at just the right time… but that’s about it. I really love this film, but I miss that extra level of character focus that made The World’s End in particular so surprising to me. If Baby Driver is Wright’s wooing mixtape, I hope it’s successful in winning the elusive heart of our lady, Cinema. I’d love to see them come together and discover something truly unique. He’s a master craftsmen who has proven his hand at bringing vibrant life to even a straight-ahead vroom vroom action thriller, but I feel like he’s got even more in him. Edgar Wright is on the verge of surpassing himself, and I can’t wait to see it happen.