Driven to Succeed

2015 should have been a great year for Edgar Wright. He’d first made his name in British TV, including “Spaced,” a series starring Simon Pegg that was a wildly inventive comedy. Switching to film, he created the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy with Pegg and Nick Frost: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. Then he got the chance to write and direct Marvel’s Ant-Man, a dream project for Wright that he’d pushed to do for a decade. It would have been a major breakthrough into Hollywood, but “creative differences” led to Marvel replacing him at the start of filming. (He did get story and screenplay credits, but he’s said he’ll never watch the film.) Some people could be broken by the experience. Instead Wright has come back with his best picture ever, and my favorite film of the summer that doesn’t star Gal Gadot. Baby Driver takes the classic crime drama and gives it a nitro-injection that puts it into a new class.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver par excelance. Atlanta crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) puts together different crews for different capers, but he always uses Baby to drive, almost as a good luck charm. The opening sequence underlines his prowess with a hi-octane race through the streets of Atlanta after a bank robbery executed by Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal).

A car accident when he was a child killed his beloved mother and abusive father, and left him with tinnitus that he plays music to cover. Baby lives with his adoptive father, Joseph (C.J. Jones), a wheel-chair bound deaf-mute who doesn’t approve of Baby’s work with Doc. Then Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress in a coffee shop, and falls hard for her. He has one more job to do to settle a debt with Doc, and then he dreams of getting away with Debora. But getting out isn’t that easy.

As usual, Wright both directed and wrote the original script, and it retains his trademark comedy flair. A robber is told to get Michael Myers/Halloween masks and instead gets Mike Myers Halloween masks. Later, Baby takes Doc’s 8-year-old nephew along while casing a robbery target, and the kid proves better at the job than Baby. He also has a tracking shot during the opening credits that would have made Orson Welles envious (something he’d also done at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead). But in Baby Driver they’re pace points to give the audience a chance to breathe. When Baby’s behind the wheel, that chance is gone. Wright went old school with the action sequences, eschewing green screen and actually choreographing the chases with stunt drivers. You can practically smell the burnt rubber.

While shot mostly in the brilliant sunlight of Atlanta, Baby Driver has the DNA of film noir. Wright creates serious tension with Spacey’s and Hamm’s characters, as well as a lethal Jamie Foxx who comes in midway through the film. It gives a sharper contrast to Baby, who is bothered if anyone is harmed in the course of the capers.

Elgort made a name for himself with YA movies (The Divergent series, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) but here he graduates to an adult, action role and handles it beautifully. Lily James was luminous in Cinderella. In this film she oozes southern charm, even though the south that she’s from is Southern England. Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx have a field day with their roles, especially Hamm, though a wonderful discovery is Eiza Gonzalez. Her Darling is a bonny Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde, and she matches the others in lethal intensity.

Wright has crafted an awesome soundtrack for the movie, blending T. Rex, Queen, and Beck with Martha and the Vandellas, Golden Earing, and Barry White. It underpins the movie, and at times even adds commentary to the action. The credits feature Simon and Garfunkel with their eponymously titled “Baby Driver” off of the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album.

A phrase often tossed about in the face of adversity is “Don’t get mad, get even.” After the experience on Ant-Man, Wright didn’t just get even, he excelled. If you like action, but wish it could be handled in an inventive, fresh way, with deep and interesting characters, this is the movie for you.

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True Noir

Michael Mann’s film and TV projects have always had a strong sense of style.  His breakthrough series, Miami Vice, set fashion for men in the 1980’s, including the stubble look for facial hair.  Following Vice, he took one of the oldest chestnuts of American literature, The Last of the Mohicans, and turned it into a thrilling, romantic adventure.  While he’s worked in many genres, he has a special passion for crime drama.  Heat is a modern classic, and early in his career he made the well-received Thief and the underappreciated Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon.  It featured the first appearance of the character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, though this time he was played by Brian Cox.

In 2004, Mann tried his hand at film noir, working from an original script by Stuart Beatie,  Collateral takes the noir plot of a good man drawn into a criminal enterprise, and melds it with the classic convention of tragedy that the action takes place within one day.  Since it’s noir, it takes place in one night.

Vincent (Tom Cruise) arrives at Los Angeles International Airport, where he bumps into a man (Jason Statham in a cameo role).  Each sets down the bag he’s carrying, they exchange a few words, and then they move on, having exchanged bags.

The film then switches focus to cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) as he begins his shift.  As the sun’s going down, he picks up a fare at LAX.  Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a federal prosecutor who’s heading for her downtown office where she’ll spend the night preparing for a big case that begins the next morning.  As they drive, she shares her professional fears while Max shares his dream of starting a limo company.  When they arrive at Annie’s building, she impulsively gives him her card.

Then Vincent gets into Max’s cab.  As they drive to Vincent’s destination, Vincent explains why he doesn’t like Los Angeles.  “It’s too sprawled out, disconnected… Nobody knows each other.  I heard about this guy, gets on the MTA here, and dies… Six hours he’s riding the subway before anyone notices his corpse is doing laps around L.A.  People off and on, sitting next to him, nobody notices.”  When they arrive at the destination, one of the apartment buildings that fill much of L.A., Vincent explains he has five stops to make that night and offers Max six hundred dollars to drive him around and then get him back to LAX for his morning flight, with a bonus if he doesn’t have to run to catch the plane.  Max agrees to the deal and pulls into the alley behind the apartments to wait.

Then a body falls on the roof of Max’s cab.  Vincent appears, and Max asks if he killed the man.  “No, I shot him,” Vincent responds, “the bullets and the fall killed him.”  Vincent forces Max to continue to drive him to his appointments around the city.

The genesis of Collateral shows how a movie goes from initial idea to finally making it onto the screen.  In 1989, 17-year-old Stuart Beatie was taking a cab from the airport in his native Sydney, Australia, when he got the idea of a killer riding around in the back of a taxi.  He wrote out a treatment and when he was attending Oregon State he completed a first draft of the screenplay.  While he did a screenwriting course at UCLA, he’d work on it occasionally.  He was waiting tables in L.A. when he ran into a college friend who was now working at Dreamworks.  She got him an appointment with Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) who was interested in the screenplay and presented it to HBO.  When HBO passed, Beatie did another draft of the screenplay that Dreamworks bought.  Darabont also did a draft of the screenplay himself.

It sat on the shelf for a couple of years while it was offered to directors such as Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, among others.  Nothing much happened until Russell Crowe took an interest in playing Vincent.  It was Crowe who brought Michael Mann on board (they had worked together on The Insider).  Crowe had to drop out because of conflicts, but Mann remained.  The screenplay had resonance for him, since he’d driven a cab himself when he was younger, and his grandfather had owned a cab company.  Mann made major changes to the script, including changing the setting from Manhattan to L.A.

The casting process was interesting.  Beatie had originally pictured Robert DeNiro as Max, a reverse from his Travis Bickle role in Taxi Driver.  After Crowe dropped out, the Vincent role was offered to actors such as Edward Norton and Colin Farrell before Cruise was cast.  Originally, Adam Sandler was considered for Max – this was during the time he was trying to become a more serious actor, with roles in Punch-drunk Love, Anger Management, and Spanglish – but that fell through and Foxx was cast.  Mann had also cast Val Kilmer, who had worked with Mann on Heat, in the role of LAPD Det. Fanning.  Kilmer had to drop out because of conflicts with Oliver Stone’s Alexander, so Mark Ruffalo played the character instead.  The role of the crime lord Felix was given to Javier Bardem, in one of his first English-speaking roles.  He’s smoldering in his scene, previewing the menace he generated in No Country For Old Men and Skyfall, even though he’s simply sitting in a restaurant booth the entire time.

Collateral premiered on 6 August 2004, so it took 15 years to move from idea to completed film.

This was the first movie to be filmed almost completely with High Definition Digital cameras.  The exception was the scene in the Fever nightclub; the club lights didn’t work well with the digital format.  After Collateral, Panavision revamped the system to make it better, but it works wonderfully for the film.  L.A. is a city where there’s almost never complete darkness because of fill light from streets and businesses.  That’s enough light for digital, so for once the true feel of L.A. at night was captured on the screen.

Vincent is one of Tom Cruise’s better roles.  The decision was made to make him older, so Cruise’s hair and stubbly beard are dyed gray.  With his gray suit, he becomes a vision of death from Revelations – a pale rider.  It’s one of the few times Cruise has played a villain, and he’s compelling in the role.  While Cruise gets top billing, it’s Jamie Foxx who gets the meatier role as Max.  Max is a person who talks a good game and has his dreams, but he doesn’t have the willpower to make them a reality.  In the course of his night with Vincent, he comes to see that no one else can or will save him from Vincent, and it’s up to him to save Vincent’s last target.  He becomes the hero he has to be.

The rest of the cast provides stellar support.  Along with Ruffalo, Pinkett Smith and Bardem, you have Bruce McGill as the head of a Federal task force targeting Felix, Peter Berg as Ruffalo’s boss in the LAPD, and Barry Shabaka Henley as Daniel, the trumpet-playing owner of a jazz club.

James Newton Howard wrote an excellent score for the film, though Mann characteristically took out much of the original work and substitute recorded music throughout the film.  However, the final 17 minutes of the film, the climatic conflict between Max and Vincent, is played out over Howard’s music.  It captures the feeling of the film beautifully.

The movie was a solid success as it crossed the hundred million line in the U.S.  It came in #23 on 2004’s box office list, between Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, and Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winner, Million Dollar Baby.  That year included such hits as Shrek 2, Spiderman 2, The Bourne Supremacy, The Passion of the Christ and The Incredibles. 

If you’re looking for a stylish, tight thriller to pop into the DVD player, Collateral would be an excellent choice.