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The Fast and the Fallacious

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Maarten Vanden Abeele/Wild Bunch

MOVIE REVIEW
Racer and the Jailbird (2017)

Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” had to revamp its entire second half from scratch after an incident on set, but if you saw the movie without knowing that you’d never be able to tell. Fatih Akin’s “Head-On” remains one of the best movies of the new millennium despite the lead actor having to be packed off to rehab for several months. The major plot shift that created is startling and noticeable, but the cast and crew were talented enough to adapt and make a movie of incredible emotional power. Something along those lines clearly happened to “Racer and the Jailbird.” If it didn’t, that is much worse, because the movie really looks like it did.

It starts off brilliantly – Gino known as Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) meets Benedicte known as Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos) behind the scenes at a racetrack. She’s eating some fruit salad and he has a pink sweater thrown over his shoulders. Her family’s business sponsors her motor racing career, at which she’s really very good, and her brother knows Gigi through his import-export business. Their attraction is immediate, red-hot and the real thing. There are only two small problems. The first is Gino’s actual career of robbing banks. The second is where the movie gets weird. Weird and very bad, and not in a good way. Bad in a someone-went-to-rehab-and-didn’t-come-back way. Bad in a way that makes critics reach for the word “preposterous.” And bad in a way that insults the absolutely terrific first half of the film.

But what a first half. There is a rowdy dinner early on which establishes both Gigi’s rapport with his friends, but also his and Bibi’s incredible devotion to each other, done well enough that this cliché is forgiven. There are a few sex scenes, and more scenes of them snuggling in front of a fire and telling each other their secrets. It’s a shame that Bibi takes Gigi’s confession of being a bank-robbing gangster as a joke, because the thought of her becoming a getaway driver and this being the Belgian “Fast & Furious” is too enticing to pass up. Alas not. Bibi works in the office of her dad’s construction business and has to sweet-talk creepy gangsters instead. Gigi and his crew operate under Michael Mann rules, if that included robbing banks bilingually while maintaining true camaraderie. The main robbery sequence is outstanding, primarily filmed in one shot, what seems to be real time and with a devastating sense of threat and menace that not even the famous sequence in “Heat” comes close to touching.

So it’s disappointing that director Michaël Roskam steered the rest of the movie so badly. Mr. Schoenaerts is a rare actor who knows how to use his physicality in a way unusual onscreen. Most of the time he carries his size so as not to intimidate, so when he does explode it’s extraordinary. Mr. Roskam understands that. But neither he nor the three male writers could think up interesting thoughts for Bibi beyond her girlfriend role. Her racing achievements are filmed by Nicolas Karakatsanis in a pedestrian style (pun absolutely intended), which offer no comparison to how the robbery sequences are staged. We don’t even learn why she likes to drive. What a wasted opportunity. Outside of Gigi and her family, Bibi has no friends, either. She’s the manic pixie speed racer, the poor thing. Ms. Exarchopoulos can do anything, and is never less than mesmerizing, but she deserved more. If the movie had made their characters proper equals, it could have been something great. Its French title translates as “The Faithful One,” in reference to the scene where Bibi’s dad explains to Gigi that, while he dislikes the relationship, he understands and will support it, because he knows what Bibi wants and trusts Gigi’s love for his daughter. If only the movie had trusted Bibi the same and let her open the throttle.

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