From this year, John Wick 2 was great in the action choreography department although I think it peaked with the Rome catacombs. However, it would still be a film that I'd just fast forward to the action sequences.
Baby Driver is something entirely different. You care about the characters and the stakes. If choreography is what brings you to an action film, then you'll be happy to find out that nearly the whole film is that. The whole reason people like a musical is because of the choreography, same for fans of martial arts/action movies. Baby Driver just decided to combine both by being a full on action musical. The early one-take dance Baby does while on his route through downtown Atlanta is straight out of a musical where even he matches the trumpet section in the song to blowing a wall graffiti trumpet on cue. The choreographer Ryan Heffington (Sia's music videos) and stunt director Darrin Prescott (Drive, Bourne trilogy, Crank, John Wick) were coordinating together to make these sequences work. It's more of a musical than something like La La Land or Chicago because at least those films have just dialogue or dramatic scenes with no rhythm to them. Baby Driver decides to have nearly every behaviour be set to the beat. Walking, picking up items, pressing buttons (which is often used as a match cut), gunshots, hiding behind a tree, nearly everything is set to a rhythm. The songs govern the movie. Imagine your life with a constant soundtrack and that is Baby's character to a T. It's not surprising that Edgar Wright is so good at this given his music video and comedy background where timing is key (see: Edgar Wright - How To Do Visual Comedy), but still doing a feature film out of this feels like inventive and experimental filmmaking at its finest.
From the moment go, you know Ansel Elgort is having a ball with his performance. He is brilliant here, along with the rest of the cast. I never watched a film with him before, so seeing how much range he can bring to this character while holding his own against acting heavyweights such as a couple of Oscar winners (Edgar would whisper "double Oscar shot" whenever Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx were on-screen) shows he's got loads of talent when utilised by the right directors. As soon as the film starts with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" - which is the song that inspired the idea in director Edgar Wright's head - Ansel Elgort's Baby is doing what we all do when we hear a song we love. Air guitar, air keyboard, air drums, the whole lot while waiting for the bank heist to finish in his red Subaru. Then he drives away with the crew and all the beats of the song are matched with the car chase's elements. Like, just listen to that song and imagine a car chase to it, then you might get an idea of the dynamics of that song lend so well to one along with 34 other licensed tracks. From the screening and Q&A I went to yesterday evening, at the BFI Southbank with Edgar Wright, he talked about how the DP Bill Pope would bring up how sometimes the song lengths were too short for the longer action sequence, which was then written into the script where Baby rewinds the song to get to the best bit and then continues. Throughout most of the movie, I was nodding my head to the music, even when intense action is happening and people are dying haha.
There are three or four big action setpieces but what will likely stop you from fast-forwarding to just those bits is that the whole film is exciting from start to finish. The characters are interesting and there are unpredictable twists to each which makes you even more invested in the stakes for Baby and Debora (Lily James). Jamie Foxx as Bats is just a joy to watch as the wild card but more like tough love character. The romance of Baby and Debora is so endearing in that retro Americana manner that you can't help but root for them against this crime world. Even the dialogue scenes have a rhythm thanks to Bill Pope and Edgar Wright's regular editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss. You know the film is through the eyes of Baby because when he's not listening to music, you can either hear the composer Steven Price about to match the score to the next song or the ringing from his tinnitus. Baby's relationship with his foster dad at his apartment that is all through sign language brings out most of the heart and charm in the movie.
The plot isn't revolutionary, it's simple (one last job, romantic interest as motivation to get out of the crime life) but clean. Unlike many 2.5 hr blockbuster films (this is even less than 2 hours), it doesn't get bogged down in convoluted plot threads that don't get all fully resolved. While the film is stylish and uproarious, it's not escapist entertainment because it sheds a light on there being consequences. The film starts with a clean and professional getaway but as it goes on, things get messy and mistakes are made. No one gets to wipe their hands clean from their criminal actions.
Special note, I expected Debora to end up being a damsel in distress as is the usual for female romantic interests in crime action films but she holds her own and has agency to the events so there aren't plot contrivances to shorten her presence.
Unlike many action films where the good guys and baddies wear black, this film cares about colour choices for characters. Bats, Darling, Buddy, Baby, Debora, Doc, all got their schemes which as the director explained makes it easier to track them during the intense bits. Edgar mentioned how Mad Max Fury Road did a good job of this, and if you want to hear more about many other details (why it was 22 years in the making, editing, Atlanta, songs, timeless vibe, no green screen) eeked out in the super detailed Q&A, I made a post about it in the Movies-GAF thread.
I didn't know Lily James in a retro diner outfit with boots would give me the vapours. I totally have a mancrush on Ansel Elgort's facial scars and retro American Elvis-like cool persona he's got going on in this film.
This was an absolutely incredible film, and I don't see even the Apes film topping this for the best action film of 2017. It'll be hard for a future action film to top the creativity found here. If you've liked recent or older action films like Mad Max Fury Road, John Wicks, The Raids, Dredd, Kingsman, Bullitt, The Driver, Heat, don't miss out. Comes out on June 28th in most places, and July-August in other countries, so not long to wait.