A deft opening heist sequence manages to combine the crime stylings of The Driver/Drive (the coolest man on the erratic team is the getaway driver), Gun Crazy (we stay in the car waiting while the robbery goes down offscreen in the bank) and … um … Hudson Hawk (the driver selects his own soundtrack for each job, and then times his moves to every beat of a compilation album’s worth of choice cuts). Writer-director Edgar Wright carries this over into what might easily have been a calming credits sequence as Baby (Ansel Eglort) walks through the streets of Atlanta with take-out coffee, matching his deft footwork to ‘Harlem Shuffle’. In fact, this is almost a through-composed movie – as much a mix-tape of cues from favourite road movies or hardboiled crime dramas as it is a contemporary teen-themed action picture. Indeed, part of the fantasy – justified by the hero’s memories of his muso Mom (Sky Ferreira) – is that anyone Eglort’s age would have such an eclectic and frankly good taste in tunes. Imagine Vanishing Point’s Kowalski in 1971 shoving in eight-tracks of Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee or Spike Jones.
There’s a stylised edge, with even a few black and white fantasies tipped in, that suggests this is at least partially Baby’s imagined version of reality. The rationale is that he has had tinitis since the accident in which his parents were killed, and plays songs on a selection of mood-coordinated i-pods to drown the ‘hum in the drum’. In the opening stretch, he seems to be a mute, communicating in sign-language with his deaf wheelchairbound foster father (CJ Jones) and only talking to the crooks his patron Doc (Kevin Spacey) assembles for each gig when directly addressed – or needled. The spur for Baby is a meet-cute with a waitress (Lily James) who symbolises a way out of the life of crime he’s fallen into … and, a few smart lines aside, is slightly too much a token of what Baby wants rather than an actual character. Far more vivid are the goons brought together for the film’s series of robberies – Doc sees Baby as a good-luck charm but otherwise rotates his heisters.
The first team includes Bonnie-and-Clyde-like pair Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and bristling hardman Griff (Jon Bernthal) … then we get Bats (Jamie Foxx), who objects to the seeming autistic on the team because he feels he already takes the position of being the crazy one on the team and clumsy J.D. (Lanny Joon), who ‘puts the Asian in home invasion’ and illustrates one likely way Baby could get out of this life. A typical Wright touch is Doc’s decree that his crew’s dress code for a robbery is ‘Michael Myers from Halloween’, rendered ridiculous when a minion shows up with Austin Powers masks by mistake – but, also typical is the actual body count that goes with the fun (all Wright’s comedies involve people – many of whom we like, some of whom we definitely don’t – getting horribly mangled and killed). It’s a ‘one last job’ scenario, and after two gigs go relatively well (a dropped shotgun aside) and a Free Fire-style meet (featuring a welcome Paul Williams cameo) turns into a massacre, Baby finds himself co-opted against his will into a raid with the most unstable of Doc’s soldiers, though there’s some misdirection about who will turn out to be the most dangerous and formidable when Baby goes for broke and tries to get away from being a getaway man.
It’s a hymn to the muscular, stripped-down, kinetic action films of the 1970s – with more stuntwork than CGI – that uses multiple distancing effects: we’re made to think of Nicolas Winding Refn thinking of William Friedkin thinking of Walter Hill thinking of Jean-Pierre Melville thinking of Joseph H. Lewis thinking of Fritz Lang, but with a comic verve that taps into a whole other action tradition that includes John Landis, Frank Tashlin, Blake Edwards, Chuck Jones and Buster Keaton. Wright’s particular twist here is the music, which gives his protagonist an inner life behind his shades and the slight scarring which wounds Eglort’s angelface – but also takes over the film to a great extent, setting the pace and rhythm for action and even dialogue scenes. As a post office robbery is botched, Wright cuts the scene to the remarkable yodelling metal/accordion track ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus – last heard and wasted in the Robocop remake – with at least as much fidelity as Gore Verbinski’s use of the ‘William Tell Overture’ in The Lone Ranger. Even the gunshots are synced to the music.
In Green Room, there’s a running joke about musical tastes – with a doomed punk attitude-striker admitting near death that her ‘desert island band’ would really be Simon & Garfunkel. This saves its title track for the end credits, by which time it would take a stronger man than me not to stock up their mp3 player with the soundtrack album (as it happens, I suffer mildly from tinitis too). As in Scott Pilgrim vs the World – Wright’s other US-shot film – there’s an attention to detail (extending beyond the film itself into things like the posters) and an outsider’s view which recalls the way John Boorman shot America in Point Blank or John Schlesinger shot New York in Midnight Cowboy … with the difference that Wright loves the diners, the menus, the posters, the music, the pointed slang and the way every aspect of life is filtered through pop culture.