Generally I’m a fan of Edgar Wright. I love Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, (although Scott Pilgrim was quite poor). However I’d heard great things about his latest film, especially the opening few minutes. I’d even been vaguely tempted to see it in the cinema, despite this century’s big-screen experiences essentially amounting to paying for the pleasure of being disappointed. So I didn’t.
Let’s cut straight to the chase then - since that’s what the opening scene is - and sum it up by saying that what had been heralded by many as the best opening scene of a film ever … was disappointing. Perhaps my enjoyment was marred by the ‘Blair Witch’ effect, i.e. there’d been so much hype that it was never going to live up to it, but I couldn’t help but think the beginning of Drive was far better. More tense, more intriguing. But then, if you wanted your opening scene to clearly announce ‘This is an Edgar Wright film’ then that’s what it did. Not only was it edited to the music like a music video, but there was even a reason for having said music - our hero liked to listen to his original-issue iPod whilst driving a getaway car. And therein lies the first flaw:
Apple earbuds are shit, and over the growl of an Impreza engine they’d either be inaudible, or you’d have to crank them up so loud you’d get tinnitus. But thankfully our hero already had tinnitus so that all works out nicely.
Anyway, to sum up the first scene: Don from Mad Men and a random selection of other actors rob a bank, then a twelve-year-old in a bright red not-inconspicuous-at-all car drives better than anyone on the planet ever has before and they escape with loads of money. Hurrah.
Yeah alright - it’s fun, quirky and sets the tone for the film. But the problem is this:
Edgar Wright is brilliant at quirky comedy capers. His slickly-timed, pre-conceived edits work wonderfully in Spaced et al, and put him alongside Wes Anderson in that 'Director who has a really obvious thing' category, but when you try to incorporate those into a semi-serious action thriller ... it desperately falters, like the dying throes of a wind-up chicken.
I heard that Wright knows which song he's going to use in a scene before he films it. He has it playing on set before they roll the shot, so the actors have it in their heads when he calls 'Action'. As a result, his charges strut to the same beat as the music, which makes the resulting edit a dream. There's no denying that a good film has a certain flow, a pace to it; and that goes for the script as well. The best screenplays skip along to a verbal beat, to a sort of cinematic iambic pentameter. Without doubt, every writer has imagined a certain song when composing a scene, a song they would use at that moment if they had the choice, be it a swaggering rock song when The Gang enters the room in slow-mo, or that bare-bones RnB track during the intimate love scene. In reality, it's unlikely that the song you want will actually get used ... unless of course you're Tarantino, [although he did have issues with 'Stuck in the Middle With You'] or, I guess, Edgar Wright. But do you choose the music and mould the film to the soundtrack, or vice-versa?
Traditionally, of course, the music is pretty much the last that's done to a film, and while a scene can without doubt be defined by its music, I have issues with Wright's premeditative approach to Baby Driver. Take, for example, a later scene where Buddy and Darling are involved in a police shoot-out. Every shot of their guns was in time with the music, the whole scene a conceited pop video that jarred with the viewer. It may seem cool and clever on the surface, but it fails for these reasons:
1 - It makes us aware that we're watching a movie, rather like a lucid dream in which we suddenly realise that this isn't real, and we know we're in a dream; so we're jolted out of the filmic reverie and are aware that this is a fabrication, and therefore...
2 - ... this detracts from the gravity of the situation, from the do-or-die gunfight taking place. The best action movies know when to play serious and when to play light. Raiders of the Lost Ark, perfect example. Imagine if The Godfather's shootouts were coordinated to The Barber of Seville? God forbid. This dilution of drama lessens the impact of Darling's death, like she was just some bit of eye-candy of little significance. Which leads me on to my main problem with this film...
Its female characters are weak.
Really disappointingly "shit who wrote this?!" weak.
At a time when women in Hollywood are screaming out for stronger roles (whilst outing Harvey Weinstein as the evil rape-toad that he is), this film takes two potentially very deep, interesting characters and ... runs them over.
Then reverses, and runs over their pretty little heads.
Again and again.
Let's start with Darling (Monica). Just because she carries a gun and participates in robberies doesn’t make her a strong character. She aimlessly follows Buddy like a lost duckling - she even has a tattoo saying ‘His’ on her neck for fuck's sake. I didn't notice the reciprocal tattoo on Buddy so I'll assume he forgot to get it done. If they had matching tattoos, that would've made them such a more interesting duo, like a messed-up BDSM Bonnie & Clyde. But no.
And then there's Debora.
Oh Debora. Debora. It's like the women in this film only exist for the men's needs. You literally only exist to show that Baby is actually a sweet 'normal' guy who's kinda sensitive. You share some really (really!) long iPod earphones in a laundrette and laugh at his cuteness. He then goes to jail for 5 years and you wait for him.
Because you're a strong, independent woman!
No sorry - I mean because you're a fucktard.
Debora's, what, 20ish? And some guy who she doesn't really know, who she then finds out to be a getaway driver with possible murder charges, has such a profound effect on her that five years later she's waiting outside the prison like a pudding, moist and warm for him.
ARE YOU FUCKING SHITTING ME??
She barely knew this guy. Even if she was going out with him for a year and loved him to bits, would she spend FIVE WHOLE YEARS of her early twenties waiting for him?
She'd move on.
The film gave us no reason to believe she'd wait for him. NONE. There was no real connection, no joining of minds, no point at which you thought 'These two are made for each other'. And ... and ...
HE DIDN'T EVEN MAKE A MIX-TAPE FOR HER!
That was the biggest unfulfilled set-up in cinema history. Making a mix-tape for someone is the ultimate cute romantic gesture. If Baby had used his old-skool-style tape recordings to record a mix-tape for Debora and slip it to her before he got sent away, then maybe, just maybe, the audience could believe that their romance would stand the test of time and she'd come to fetch him 1,826 days later. But no. Because she's such a weak character and Baby is painted as the cool, alluring getaway driver, she doesn't require such shows of affection. She just needs to turn up.
Baby Driver has occasional good points - e.g. the foster father, slightly contrived as he might be - but also many flaws, much of them elemental (the getaway driver leaves his fingerprints all over the car, for starters). Just about every human interaction was superficial and without believable motivation. But its lack of strong female roles is its biggest undoing, and one that frankly I can't believe wasn't called out by others in the industry. It shows that Edgar Wright isn't up to writing scripts of this degree and should pay someone else to write them for him, because he is simply not up to it.
It's a shame, because Baby Driver could've been a very decent action film, but sadly - to continue the automobile theme - it's like a Vauxhall Calibra: slick on the outside, but underneath the surface essentially just a bog-standard Cavalier.