The key difference is the mood, mostly indicated by the music: Baby Driver (reviewed by my colleague Christopher Orr here) is set to a bouncy, eclectic soundtrack, hand-picked by Wright, that is constantly playing in Baby’s earbuds (he has a diverse collection of iPods) as he roars through the motorways of Atlanta. While his crew wreaks havoc at the bank they’re robbing, Baby sits in the car, lip-syncing gleefully to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The ensuing chase with the cops is just like The Driver’s—all squealing tires and blaring sirens, no talking—but when set to pop music, it becomes a free-spirited romp.
Rather than create a knowing comedy out of his favorite genre films, Wright makes Baby Driver a concentrated caper flick. The movie is wrapped up in many of the visual hallmarks of the genre, but it also, unusually, hinges on its protagonist’s moral growth—his evolution from willing stooge to reluctant hero. His youth aside, Baby looks just like the heartless anti-heroes of films like Heat, Reservoir Dogs, Vanishing Point, and The Italian Job; early on, when the bank robber Griff (Jon Bernthal) snatches the sunglasses off his face, Baby immediately replaces them with a different pair. He lives a largely anonymous life, haunting the diner his dead mother used to work at and waiting for his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) to call him for another job.
But while the heist movies Wright adores usually end with the anti-hero either driving off into the unknown, or dying in a hail of gunfire, Baby Driver sees Baby ultimately betraying his criminal colleagues, killing the two deadliest (played by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm), serving time in prison, and eventually getting released into the arms of his true love Debora (Lily James). The film has been dismissed by some critics as a stylish, but empty, genre exercise by Wright. But I think he’s quite boldly trying to do two compelling things at once: hold true to the cool, detached iconography of the getaway-driver movie, while layering in a surprising, but heartfelt, moral transformation.
That’s why the earbuds are so crucial. They aren’t just Wright’s excuse to jazz up the car chases and turn them into toe-tapping musical sequences. Right from the opening shots, Baby is doggedly trying to block out the nasty mayhem around him (in addition to his tinnitus). As he’s enthusiastically lip-syncing to “Bellbottoms,” he throws a couple of glances over his shoulder at the bank, where Griff is aggressively firing his shotgun into the air. Later in the film, when Doc kills JD (Lanny Joon) for screwing up a heist, Baby has to dispose of the car with his body in it, a task he performs while listening to the Commodores’ “Easy” (a song he associates with his dead mother).
Baby’s habit of recording conversations he overhears (one that eventually gets him into trouble) feels like a similar way of blinkering out the bleakness. He literally steals the dialogue of the heartless criminals he works with and transforms it into sunny dance music, remixing it with his home-DJ kit. Eventually, he can no longer ignore the monstrousness surrounding him, partly because of the aggressively psychotic Bats (Foxx, wonderfully demented) and the berserker rage of Buddy (Hamm, who lets completely loose in the film’s final act), and partly because of his love for Debora and his need to protect his kindly foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).