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On the Road

by Ross Douthat

A few years ago, I noted the oddity that one of the best action directors working had yet to make a straightforward action film, preferring to deploy his skills in the realm of genre parody instead. That director was Edgar Wright, an Englishman responsible for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, each of them a send-up of a different action-packed genre — the zombie flick, the Bruckheimerian cop movie, the alien-invasion film — and each starring the same Anglo-thespian odd couple, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as ordinary blokes going guns blazing through scenarios usually tailored for a Schwarzenegger or Willis or Keanu.

Now Wright has finally made an action flick for real. That means it’s set in America (the land of all true action flicks), it features bank robberies (necessarily), it has an awful lot of irresponsible fast driving, inevitably choreographed to a (one would hope) lovingly selected rock soundtrack, and it culminates in that inevitable action-movie situation — the guy who’s planning to head west on the open road with his girlfriend as soon as he survives one . . . last . . . job.

His specific job is the driving, not the shooting. The movie’s title is “Baby Driver,” swiped from a Simon and Garfunkel song that I’ll prove my youthfulness by admitting to never having heard of before this, and its hero is literally a driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) — a soft-cheeked young man who lost his parents to a bad car accident and grew up to be a sometime car thief turned cool-as-ice master of the highway.

His coolness, though, requires a soundtrack, because the accident left him with recurring tinnitus — a “hum in the drum,” as the movie’s crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), puts it — and he plays music from a collection of battered iPods to drown it out. But the playlists don’t just bury the hum; they also set his driving to a constant beat, soundtracking every robbery that he participates in — a soundtrack that is also the movie’s own, the one that we hear playing as the heists go down.

This is very clever, so long as you suspend your disbelief a little (and why not, it’s an action movie) at how not only the swerve-veer-spin of the car but also the bang-bang-bang of guns lines up with the beats from Baby’s earbuds. And Wright has brought in some professionals to handle the bang-bang-bang part: Along with Spacey’s mastermind, spitting gnomic Mametesque cool-guy lines at his teams of bank robbers, there’s Jon Hamm as Buddy, a dissolute Don Draper type who has turned to grand larceny to feed his drug habit and his killer girlfriend, Darling (Eiza González), and Jamie Foxx as Bats, who’s out to prove that he’s as crazy as his moniker suggests.

Buddy, Darling, and Bats, plus a few expendables, are the robbers whom Baby has to chauffeur from heists to hideaways, a job he’s taken on because he made the mistake of stealing the crime boss’s car as a teenager and Doc isn’t the forgiving sort. What he wants is enough money to take care of his foster dad (CJ Jones) and to woo the music-loving diner waitress (Lily James) with whom he shares the fantasy of driving west. What he gets, inevitably, is a big heist gone wrong, in which his supposed partners become more-substantial obstacles than the police to his hope for escape.

Wright handles all this with great skill, strong musical choices, and fantastic color-splashed choreography. Even if he’s dealing in the familiar, the clichéd, you will be entertained; in fact, he practically insists upon it.

The only trouble is that a great action movie needs a great action hero, and Ansel Elgort isn’t that. He has an interesting physicality, lithe and flexible, that suits some of his soundtracked movements when he isn’t behind the wheel, and I’m not sure he’s exactly a bad actor. But in a part like this, with precious little dialogue and a lot of behind-the-wheel glowering, you need a certain level of tough-guy charisma, a touch of Steve McQueen. Elgort doesn’t have any McQueen in him, and so his performance emphasizes the character’s savantish eccentricity instead. But in the end, he still seems way too much like a soft kid with a punchable face who wouldn’t really last an hour in this world.

It doesn’t help that Hamm, who has generally disappointed in non–Don Draper roles, here finds a Draperesque part that works for him, so that by the time he emerges as Baby’s final antagonist, his alpha maleness more or less owns the screen — and Elgort can’t compete with it, even with a young beauty at his side and a gearshift in his hand. And then the deliberately unreal happy ending that Wright ultimately delivers him feels even more like cotton candy than it should.

In the summertime, though, a little cotton candy is never amiss. This is not the perfect action film that Edgar Wright could make and might yet make. But I promise that you will enjoy the taste.

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