DVD Movie Review: Racer and the Jailbird

By Tomas Barry 16.01.2019

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Racer and the Jailbird (UK Rating: 15)

The director of Racer and the Jailbird, Michael R. Roskam, is responsible for a lot of highly regarded works, such as Carlo, Bullhead, and The Drop. With this project, Roskam looks to produce a romantic crime-thriller with a unique and modern twist, one that is offered with motor-head enthusiasts in mind. Considering the director's track record, Racer and the Jailbird is a mouth-watering prospect for its target audience. With Adele Exarchopoulos, known for her leading role in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Matthias Schoenaerts, the star of films such as Rust and Bone, playing star-crossed lovers, it seems well equipped to succeed as a fresh variation of the formula. Set against the backdrop of Brussels, it centres around Bibi, a race driver, and Gigi, a bank-robber, who fall in love under deceptive and tragic circumstances. Does Racer and the Jailbird, out now via Thunderbird Releasing, succeed, or does it skip too many gears?

The film begins in a fairly engaging way, establishing how Gigi and Bibi first cross paths in the paddocks. Unfortunately, despite a lot of good chemistry between the two actors, their developing relationship is paced quite poorly, suffering from some sequencing mis-shifts that undermine the full-throttle nature of their love narrative. In other words, things just aren't pieced together carefully enough, which means that the viewer may not feel all that invested in the characters as the momentum really gathers, despite all the intrigue within their love tragedy. The final two thirds of the viewing experience mostly revolve around Gigi's life as a professional bank robber and his inevitable undoing. The film rather coughs and splutters through these increasingly intense scenes, and in the final two phases, the love narrative descends into disappointingly silly melodrama. This reduces Bibi to less than she ought to be and turns Gigi into a bit of a bore.


 
Although it's well shot and framed, neither the abrupt exposition covering Gigi's upbringing and deceptions, nor the explosion of action sequences, seem particularly well woven into the on-going narrative. Perhaps the overly rapid development is a deliberate ploy, but it's more likely to be construed as a poor setup. Compared to the classic films it aims to associate itself with, such as Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, the script and structure leave the characters with little chance of being truly compelling. Gigi could have been a thoroughly gripping character, but the mystery of his life and the unpacking of his past is not handled anywhere as innovatively as, say, Ryan Gosling's portrayal of a Hollywood stunt driver in Drive. Instead, in his final act, where he's incarcerated, he still seems underdeveloped. Worse still, the audience will probably have difficulty understanding Bibi's motivations in being so desperate to stand by him and free him.

Racer and the Jailbird could have been another hugely significant work for Adele Exarchopoulos, but Bibi's actions and depiction often come across as questionable, especially when juxtaposed with the strong independent woman met at the beginning. Strangely, the film betrays the idea that she has inner strength and mental fortitude, deriving from her successful career as a female racing car driver, by having her instantaneously fall in love. It over-pedals her implied fragility of mind as soon as she suspects her partner is deceiving her, and this becomes even worse once the couple is separated. All this comes across as quite unlikely and rather old fashioned. Without spoiling the story, it's fair to say the final two thirds of the film reduce Bibi to a helpless, frustrating character, with poor motivation. Needless to say, this is the central reason why the film just cannot be placed in the same bracket as Drive and Wild at Heart. Considering the director's track record, it is a surprisingly flawed package, which doesn't seem anywhere near as well developed as his other projects.


 
The other strange aspect of the viewing experience is how quickly Racer and the Jailbird actually detaches itself from the racing scenario. It opens with some rather gorgeous shots of Bibi in a Porsche, ragging it around a track in dying light, but never really returns to any racing environment. The relevance of racing culture to the story is actually neither here nor there, in narrative terms. It's as if the film chooses to morph into a straight-cut crime thriller, hoping nobody will really notice the switch. It's not immediately obvious why this fails to hang together coherently. One thing that is clear, however, is that motor-heads will feel that they were lured in under false pretences. That's not to say the experience isn't enjoyable at some level, but it's nowhere near being a modern racing classic.

6/10
Rated 6 out of 10

Good

Overall, after having to adjust expectations, it's hard to settle down and accept the narrative as a whole. Racer and the Jailbird is worth watching for those who are into their crime thrillers, and can tolerate love tragedy components. However, there's no denying that the film does not provide what its target audience is probably expecting. The fatal flaw is the poor structure and the even worse pacing, which inhibits the development of the lead characters. The action sequences are raw and immersive, but they are not embedded in anything of thematic significance or value. Presented differently, Gigi and Bibi could have been memorable star-crossed lovers. Instead, both seem stunted, muted personalities, with too many question marks left hanging over their heads. It could have been a modern classic, but the characterisation is just not strong enough. Racer and the Jailbird is a missed opportunity, proving to be rapid and intense, but too incoherent.

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