"Style over substance" is generally meant as a criticism, though not 'round these parts, not if I have anything to say about it. And I think, anyway, that if I call Baby Driver a particularly clear-cut example of style over substance, I am agreeing that the film turned out exactly the way writer-director Edgar Wright planned it. The idea behind the film, which he has been nurturing for literally decades, had nothing to do with its barely-there, splendidly clichéd story (a guy involved with career criminals falls in love and wants to get out of The Life; the career criminals elect to make this very hard on him, requiring the application of much violence), but with the way Wright wanted to edit and choreograph it: all of the movement in the film would be precisely synchronised to a very nearly nonstop soundtrack of pre-existing songs. Once you've come up with that hook, an action movie very neatly suggests itself, and an action movie about a getaway driver certainly makes a hell of a lot of sense from there.

And so, born out of the wreckage of Wright's ignoble departure from Marvel's Ant-Man, we finally have that feature film. Sort of. It's clearly not all of the movement that takes place precisely in line with the nicely eclectic soundtrack Wright assembled (the Simon & Garfunkel song that gave the film its title makes only a brief, rather forced appearance, and is the stylistic odd man out in the tracklist), nor even most of it. It's only the very important plot and/or action moments that get the full-on music video treatment, and this is my biggest single problem with the movie. Style over substance is great, but the style has to be prominent and prevalent and non-stop. Otherwise, you've got neither style nor substance, and what's left then? Just some rambling. And the style in Baby Driver isn't overwhelming enough (nor, in faith, inventive enough: "choreograph an action sequence entirely to pop music" can't be honestly called aesthetically radical in a world where the "Sabotage" music video has existed for 23 years) to get away with having such a thin script with such basic characters.

But I gotta say, it comes real damn close. The film's major set pieces are beautiful fucking things, and mostly worthy of the hyperbolic praise the film has received since its SXSW premiere (mostly. "The best car chases in years" is flat-out untrue. But I get it, Mad Max: Fury Road was two whole years ago, and people have short memories). Perhaps ironically, for a film with "Driver" right there in the title, most of the best and freshest choreography is primarily on foot: the opening credits sequence, for starters, is a perfect slice of glossy heaven, as the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) - the fact that every other character in the movie has a line to the effect of "wait, your actual name is Baby?" does not make this less contrived nor less annoying, and in fact perhaps makes it more so - gliding through the streets of Atlanta to pick up coffee in one sinuous take, while listening to "Harlem Shuffle" on one of his many iPods, as the entire world around him moves in perfect time to the music: doors slamming, people stepping, words in the lyrics worked into graffiti. Nothing else in the movie is so total in its application of style through very nearly every single onscreen object, but as a statement of intent, the opening credits (and slightly less so the nifty preceding car chase - edited on the beats music rather than the action, and losing some clarity as a result, but still a terrific bit of Fast & Furious-style car ballet) do a fine job of presenting the vibe that Baby Driver wants to attain, and frequently enough does.

The two big car chases, the musicalised walking, the exemplary foot chase that inaugurates the climax, and the madly frantic, extravagant final action scene, set to Queen's "Brighton Rock": when it's giving itself over to these things, Baby Driver is a great delight. Sadly, it spends a great deal more of its two hours not doing those things, but instead focusing on the story of Baby's final few jobs for Atlanta gangster Doc (Kevin Spacey), who picked the orphaned kid off the street a decade earlier and forced him into servitude as the city's best getaway driver. In between jobs, Baby tends to his failing foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), and strikes up a sweet little romance with Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress. This just so happens to coincide with the robbery that allows Baby to finally pay off Doc once and for all, and he thinks this means he gets to have a happy-ever-after with Debora, but of course if that happened, we'd have no movie at all. And to make matters work, the "they pulled me back in" heist involves a real nasty-minded psychopath, Bats (Jamie Foxx), as well as the much calmer but no less threatening married criminals Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), and things go south real fast.

That there's not a single original plot point anywhere in the film's running time is hardly a problem: this is a musical, when you get right down to it, and no genre is better able to thrive on cliché. Even so, there's a drawling thinness to the movie's story and characters. All four of Wright's features before this have been particularly good at combining genre film mechanics with rich characterisations: particularly in his trio of films with Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, there's a bedrock of melancholy and psychological distress that makes the silly comedy feel more profound, and lends the genre action a stronger sense of weight and purpose. I'm sure the Baby/Debora relationship is meant to provide Baby Driver with exactly that complexity, but it's a paper-thin romance motivated more by plot necessity than anything emotionally resonant. Besides which, in a film that doesn't offer a lot of depth to any of its characters, Debora is particular scanty, with absolutely no discernible personality or drive other than "nice" and "likes Baby".

The other place that the emotional shortfall might have been made up is in the Doc/Baby relationship, and it's very clear as the film progresses that the intent is for a sort of one-sided father/son situation, with Doc pouring all of his hopes for the future onto the young man who just wants to get the hell away. But that's not in the screenplay much either, and Spacey, who is excellent at the snappy banter and cool-as-ice crime boss aspects of the script, has nothing resembling the warmth needed to sell that kind of plot. Weirdly, the only character who ends up actually going through an interesting arc is Buddy, and Hamm is as a result the clear MVP of the film; but when the auxiliary villain is the most interesting human player in the plot, something has gone corkscrew-shaped.

By no means is any of this as-such "bad": it's a perfectly serviceable bank robbers movie for the most part, with unusually sharp dialogue, and a romantic subplot that's no less convincing than most of them. The film's heights are good enough to make everything else unusually disappointing, and Edgar Wright's track record to now even more so. There's definitely something here: cinematographer Bill Pope, editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, and the sound mixing team are all up to outstanding things, and there's a half-hour of the best material I've seen so far in the summer of 2017. But something, in this case, isn't quite enough to put the film as a whole over the top.