The aesthetic in the trailer and marketing – even the very name of this movie – is very deceptive. It looks like a cool, sexy heist thriller of the type Hollywood used to do really well but does so increasingly rarely nowadays apart from outliers like “Baby Driver”.
The gorgeous Adèle Exarchopoulos is Bibi, a Belgian racing car driver, fulfilling the long and proud tradition among young French actresses by getting her gear off for a scorching hot sex scene more than once (see also the sublime Blue is the Warmest Colour). Ken doll-beautiful Matthias Schoenaerts is Gigi, a charming young bank robber who’s part of a crew that’s been together since they were kids and who have a crackerjack m.o. that sees them fraternise with high society to prepare for a sting.
But if the plot hasn’t made it plain that “Racer and the Jailbird” is far from just a disposable sexy thriller by the time a major character starts dying of cancer, you’re not paying enough attention. It’s a tragic love story about the consequences of our decisions and how those close to us have to live with them.
Gigi’s latest job has him hang around rich toffs with an interest in car racing, and when it puts him and Bibi in each other’s eyeline, it doesn’t take them long to become completely smitten. But Gigi isn’t a cooler-than-ice ladies man who consumes beautiful girls like the other trappings of his lifestyle. He falls for Bibi hard – enough so that when things turn against the couple and their relationship, we see him staring out windows or talking to her on the phone sobbing like a baby more than once. James Bond, Ryan Gosling’s “Driver” or Han Solo archetypes this ain’t.
Gigi keeps his true line of work secret from Bibi for most of the film, but instead of a fast-moving story of high-strung tension and Hollywood fantasy cool, it’s more like a suburban melodrama about a man who’s had an affair tied up in existential knots trying to keep it from his wife so as not to destroy the relationship.
The wobbly tone isn’t helped by several action movie set pieces that not only really work but hark back to the movies of great crime thriller directors like John Hillcoat or Michael Mann. While it doesn’t match the scale of the downtown LA police siege in “Heat”, the scene of the gang robbing the armoured car by dropping a shipping container off a bridge is vibrant and well staged.
The last hour completely abandons any pretence of what the trailer seemed to promise, and it’s where “Racer and the Jailbird” will lose most viewers who give up on it. The thrills, action and aesthetic of the first half drain completely away and it turns into a thoroughly miserable melodrama, less about star cross’d lovers with romance on their side as it is a lowlife and the woman dumb enough to fall in love with him, both of them wracked with regret.
It’s well acted and both Exarchopoulos and Schoenaerts are compelling and watchable on screen, but the movie either completely loses its way or writers Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré and Michaël R Roskam (who directs) wanted to subvert the sexy Hollywood thriller genre and went too far doing it. You’ll find yourself wishing for the dangerous, rebellious racing car and bank robbery thriller you imagined it was going to be.