"Baby Driver," a new vehicular-action-thriller-jukebox-musical-romance from the British writer-director Edgar Wright, is almost as entertaining as it is hyphen-depleting. This is movie craftsmanship and showmanship of a very high order.
In the dazzling opening sequence, a red Subaru WRX carrying a team of bank robbers nimbly weaves in and out of Atlanta traffic, dodging impossible roadblocks and playing shell games with other cars. Through it all, the blare of police sirens barely registers over the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," with its propulsive refrain of "I wanna dance!"
Baby (Ansel Elgort), the exceptional young driver behind the wheel, knows how to dance and then some. Never taking his eyes off the road or his headphones out of his ears, he times every sharp turn and screeching halt to the beat of a soundtrack that only he — and, blissfully, the audience — can hear. Baby swerves with verve and ditches the cops within minutes, making the first of several narrow escapes that the movie turns into first-rate escapism.
Wright, the gonzo comic-thriller pastiche artist behind "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End" (his masterpiece, for my money), has a talent for repurposing the creakiest B-movie standards. Those three earlier films may be merciless satires of middle-class English complacency, but they are also funny-bloody valentines to the deep and inexhaustible riches of American genre movies.
With "Baby Driver," his first film since 2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" set on this side of the Atlantic, Wright pays exuberant pop tribute to pictures like Walter Hill's 1978 cult favorite, "The Driver," as well as its ultra-stylish, ultra-violent 2011 descendant, Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive." Baby has something in common with the nameless, laconic getaway artists in those earlier movies: He doesn't say much, and he's very, very good at his job.
But Elgort, casting off the constraints of his most famous role (until now) in "The Fault in Our Stars," has panache and personality aplenty beneath that shy-kid veneer, and Wright doesn't reduce him to an avatar of existential cool. He's determined to show us what's going on between the kid's ears, even if the answer is a whole lot of Queen, Golden Earring, the Commodores and Simon & Garfunkel.
Years ago, as we see in a recurring flashback, Baby was in a serious accident that left him with tinnitus. The steady pop-rock stream that now issues forth from his iPod doesn't just drown out the constant ringing in his ears; it focuses and liberates him, granting him something like second sight. That makes him a great driver and an invaluable asset to Doc (Kevin Spacey, chilled to perfection), an Atlanta crime boss who promises to let Baby go once he's worked off his debts, but has no intention of letting him get away.
The other thieves in Doc's den aren't quite as enamored of Baby. The laid-back Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his sultry lover, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), regard Baby with the tolerant affection of older siblings. Not so much Bats (a ferocious Jamie Foxx), a screw-loose sadist who takes one look at the quiet kid in the corner and immediately starts hammering away at his defenses.
His questionable co-workers aside, Baby has two big reasons for wanting to leave his life of crime. The first is his disabled foster father, Joseph (played by the deaf actor CJ Jones), their conversations in sign language underscoring Baby's natural physical expressiveness. The second is Debora (a terrific Lily James), a waitress at a '50s-themed diner who's singing to herself when she slides past Baby's booth. Their mutual passion for music tells them all they need to know; it's love at first listen.
A reluctant crook, a waitress with a heart of gold, one last job — "Baby Driver" loves its clichés the way it loves the roar of an engine, the shriek of tires on asphalt. But even its corniest contrivances are rooted in authentic feeling, its throwaway moments grounded by the presence and physicality of the actors. In one seamlessly choreographed scene, Baby makes a quick coffee run to the tune of "Harlem Shuffle," and Elgort pulls off a spontaneous-looking bit of street ballet, gliding down the street with the woozy grace of an under-caffeinated Gene Kelly.
The wall-to-wall soundtrack, cramming some three decades' worth of popular music into just under two hours, is a continual source of pleasure in its own right. Sometimes it sums up exactly what's going on (Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run"), and sometimes it works in glorious counterpoint to the action (Barry White's "Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up"). But Wright's chief inspiration here isn't that he sets action to music. It's that he turns every one of his protagonist's actions into a signifier of mood, thought and character.
At its best, "Baby Driver" makes you lean in and listen — not just to its playlist but also to its actors' words and rhythms. So much of the villainy here comes through in the voices: Foxx, the movie's scariest bad guy, distills psychotic menace into every word. Spacey's line delivery could scrape paint off a bumper. ("She's cute," he says of Debora. "Let's keep it that way.") Hamm, clearly relishing the chance to play a different breed of mad man, makes Buddy droll and genial by nature, but utterly ruthless as the occasion demands.
These guys remind Baby early and often that even the cleanest getaways can have fatal consequences, and that knowledge throws him off his game. His driving loses its what-me-worry fizz, and he starts to crash and stall, leaving Doc's thugs even more rattled than they are already. "You don't belong in that world," Joseph tells him, and it's true: Baby can't stand the sight of blood, which only increases the chances that he'll wind up shedding some himself.
That gives "Baby Driver" a moralistic undertow that its predecessors were too cool to bother with, and it also winds up draining some of the sleek, elegant fun out of the picture. The violence turns hair-raisingly nasty; what seemed at first like a high-concept lark is suddenly a nightmare of ripped flesh and distressed chrome. This dark turn may be inevitable, if the Wright formula is any indication ("Hot Fuzz" is a bloodbath wrapped in a tea cozy), but it never feels punishing. Wright isn't the kind of splatter artist who likes to scold his audiences for having a good time.
"Baby Driver" is a lavishly souped-up gimmick movie, and I don't mean that as a knock. The gimmick here is so good that I actually wanted more of it: more killer tracks, more death-defying car-eography, more chase scenes shot to look like renegade Uber commercials. You can choose your own vehicular metaphor for the mild disappointment of the ending, which skids and splutters and almost blows a tire, but you'll forgive it alongside the movie's other rough patches. A perfectly sustained feature-length high would be antithetical to the story that Wright is ultimately telling.
It's fitting that names turn out to be so powerful in "Baby Driver," in which all the crooks may be using aliases (we're kept guessing about whether Baby is our hero's true moniker) and the name tag on a waitress' uniform becomes a crucial plot device. This is, in the end, a story about identity and the expression of personal style, and how that expression to a large extent determines one's place in the world. You wonder until the end whether Baby will figure out what to do with his extraordinary gift, even as you know from the first frame that Wright already has.
MPAA rating: R, for violence and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: In general release