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A heist movie fueled byan ipod playlist

I call shotgun: Bats (Jamie Foxx) rides with Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver. Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures

You know those kids who are constantly lost in their music, tuning out the world with their white earbuds? Baby is one of them.

Played by Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars), the titular character in Edgar Wright’s heist film Baby Driver is a preternaturally gifted getaway driver who needs to listen to his iPod while putting pedal to the metal. Baby suffers from tinnitus — a condition of destabilizing ringing in the ears — since witnessing his parents die in a car crash as a young boy. Now, he mainly does getaway driver duties for heist organizer Kevin Spacey, wearing an ever-rotating selection of sunglasses and tuning out the constant tintinnabulation in his head with iPod buds. He seems like a basically good lad, though his personal quirks irritate fellow heist members. Like: he tells the crew not to hop out of the car until he’d done cueing up his “perfect” track for a certain job. (In one instance, it’s Neat Neat Neat by The Damned.)

When directors start reaching for their Spotify playlists for inspiration, it can be either a glorious thing, or a tedious exercise in self-indulgence. Edgar Wright’s latest, er, vehicle is a little of both.

While Wright’s choice of music has lit up past comedies like Shaun of the Dead (Grandmaster Flash’s White Lines, anybody?), World’s End and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the director goes a bit over the top in this one. Hipster Baby dials up a fresh ditty almost every second of the film. Arguably, this reflects the somewhat ADHD nature of both the director and the driver.

On the other hand, we do like movies that remind the public that there was once a device called the iPod, just as Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy carries around his vintage Walkman (and lately, a Microsoft Zune). Baby actually owns dozens of different iPods for various heist jobs, depending on his mood. Technology can sometimes be useful, medically speaking.

Generally, Wright’s music tastes are commendable — everything from Blur to the Beach Boys’ instrumental Let’s Go Away for Awhile to Dave Brubeck. There’s memorable use of T.Rex’s Debora while Baby is trying to woo Georgia waitress Debora (Lily James). (The two play a fun game of naming songs that have their names in the title. Baby wins.) There’s ample use of Dutch prog band Focus’s yodeling metal oddity Hocus Pocus, and Queen’s proto-speed metal classic Brighton Rock plays a supporting role during one wheel-squealing scene.

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Ever since Martin Scorsese began curating tracks for his movies (starting with Mean Streets) and Quentin Tarantino got all esoteric about it all, there’s been ample opportunity for music to parallel action onscreen. Trainspotting showed what a hyperkinetic kick it can be to mix action and song, and that led to a worldwide rave trend. But sometimes, soundtracks can’t disguise that a movie is basically style over substance, and Baby Driver is essentially a “lite” version of Drive crossed with True Romance (with better music, admittedly). Young Elgort may not be as cool as Ryan Gosling playing the zenned-out driver dude in the former movie, but Baby Driver isn’t really going after the art film audience. There’s a romance angle in which the young lovers are trying to make a desperate Hollywood getaway à la Tony Scott’s pop confection starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, but it lacks that film’s gravitas — and memorable character acting.

What Baby Driver does boast is a menacing turn from Jamie Foxx as a stickup man (appropriately named “Bats”) who finds Baby’s affectations grating — his instincts tell him not to trust the little punk behind the wheel. Then there’s Jon Hamm playing a scruffy stickup man attached at the hip to girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Things get sticky with them later on. And Spacey’s heist mastermind Doc is not so very different from other heist masterminds he’s played in the past, including Keyser Söze. All in all, they don’t quite equal the Method madness of Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper going head to head in True Romance.

Since it’s an exercise in style, we can at least praise Wright for knowing how to shoot heists well (he’s had recent experience with Ant Man). There’s a crackling energy to the getaway scenes, some good sight gags (the mix-up with the Mike Myers masks is a hoot), and some interesting reliance on sign language with Baby’s foster dad (especially having recently seen a lot of sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes). And any film that showcases the Incredible Bongo Band at least once gets points for hipster cult cred.

But you know how it is with heist films. We’ve seen a million of them over the years. And just like the protagonist who’s always lured back in for “one last job,” we always swear this will be the last heist film we’ll ever watch. It never is. We still want that perfect getaway.

On the job: Kevin Spacey’s crew hit the bank.

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