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Racer and the Jailbird
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by Jay Seaver

"Decent crime, decent romance, decent movie."
3 stars

Director Michaël R. Roskam and actor Matthias Schoenaerts made a heck of an impression with "Bullhead", enough that the pair returning to Belgium after making the pretty-good "The Drop" in America is at least worthy of some attention. "Racer and the Jailbird" is not the gritty-but-exciting seventies throwback that its English-language title might suggest; French title "Le Fidèle" is closer to what Roskam and his collaborators are going for. Either way, it's not quite the movie it could have been, though the cast makes it worth a look.

The jailbird is Gino "Gigi" Vanoirbeek (Schoenaerts), who made his best friends in juvie and is still robbing banks with them decades later. Bénédicte "Bibi" Delhany (Adèle Exarchopoulos) works for the family's construction business, but her true passion is auto racing. They meet at one of Bibi's races, Gigi claiming to be in automobile imports, and hit it off right away. They soon go close enough that Gigi is starting to think in terms of getting out after the next job, but those always have something go disastrously wrong.

They don't go disastrously wrong in a way that involves Bibi having to drive the getaway car, which would be a bit disappointing even if "drives a car well" wasn't the first thing the audience learned about Bibi. Roskam and co-writers Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré build what would be a nifty straight crime movie if that was the angle they were going, in that even though the two main jobs in the movie are kind of brute force attacks without much prep-work shown, there's still a thrill to watching them, even with some of the more important events happening off-screen. Roksam stages this material well enough so that the audience doesn't have doubts when Gigi says that what he does is exciting and that he's good at it, even if that's not really the thrust of the movie.

Instead, the main attraction is the romance between Gigi and Bibi, and how they work to keep it alive when fallout from a job keeps them mostly separate - the "faithful" of the French title. It rests firmly on the performances of Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos (probably best-known in the English-speaking world for Blue Is the Warmest Color), each getting half the movie to anchor while the other takes second position. Schoenaerts gives Gigi an affable outward confidence that is not undermined by his doubts about continuing a life of lying and occasional violence that he really does not enjoy. He's masculine without being macho, a good pairing with Exarchopoulos, whose Bibi is certainly never dainty, from her first appearance and her insistence on no flowers through the end. Exarchopoulos is good at showing the determination at the heart of the character even while highlighting the impulsiveness that comes with her youth. There's a genuine closeness in their scenes together, enough that Bibi's pushing at Gigi is that of someone who deserves an answer to the questions she asks, and a hint that a couple of years must have passed doesn't demand filling in.

Indeed, both of them are interesting enough that, despite the filmmakers giving themselves plenty of room to stretch out, there's always a sense that there are other stories lurking just out of sight, that more could be done with the friendship between Gigi and fellow bandits Serge (Jean-Benoît Ugeux) and Younes (Nabil Missoumi), with Bibi' family and ambitions, and even the odd case of an undercover cop who apparently still wants to be friends after the case wraps. More frustrating, perhaps, is the turn the film takes for its back end. What is done with Bibi can be seen as especially egregious, playing like an attack on her unconventional womanhood and further reducing her role to making Gigi a better man when she had been so interesting on her own.

That's what ultimately makes "Racer and the Jailbird" less than it could have been - it's got a half-dozen interesting ideas going on and does three-quarters of a good job with all of them. Roksam can make it look good while Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos do unfailingly fine jobs in front of the camera, but they never find the grand love story behind the fair crime one.

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originally posted: 05/14/18 03:02:49
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