Matthias Schoenaerts Is a Doomed Lover in Overwrought ‘Racer and the Jailbird’

After appearing in about a half a dozen or so critically-acclaimed films in 2015, including “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “A Little Chaos,” brooding Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts finds himself once again a romantic leading man in “Racer and the Jailbird.” A French-language action drama that makes use of numerous tropes found in American blockbusters, “”Racer and the Jailbird” follows a pair of lovers, gangster Gino “Gigi” Vanoirbeek (Schoenaerts) and race car driver Bénédicte “Bibi” Delhany (Adèle Exarchopoulos). From the moment Bibi takes off her helmet and reveals her delicate beauty to Gigi, the attraction between the two is magnetic. Despite their both being insanely hot, the odds are stacked against them from the beginning. There’s an age difference of about 10-15 years (he’s older), and she comes from a wealthy background, while he grew up destitute. And there’s also the matter of his being a serial criminal, something that’s played for laughs in the beginning when, following a passionate love making session, Bibi asks her new man what he does for a living, and he tells her the truth, knowing that she wouldn’t take him seriously. Despite these relatively carefree early days, it’s not long before the other shoe drops and the narrative and the couple take multiple sharp turns, for better or worse.

The first half of “Racer and the Jailbird” is rather upbeat, as Gig and Bibi enjoy those sex-fueled early days. Love is certainly blind, as Bib doesn’t think much of it when Gigi leaves for trips to seemingly random places like Poland with his gang, a cover for their criminal excursions. Even the scenes in which he interacts with cohorts, men he has known since their days as juvenile delinquents, have something of an “Ocean’s 11” feel. The case is made that engaging in crime is the only way these men know how to survive. Just as Bibi gets a thrill from racing, Gigi is energized by these bank robberies, although he justifies it as he and his pals are only hurting the rich and those who protect them.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Gigi eventually ends up in the slammer, as it’s right there in the title. From the point of his arrest there’s a major tonal shift as he and Bibi desperately do whatever they can to keep their relationship going. Her racing career, which never plays into the plot as much as it could, effectively comes to an end. Her father (Eric De Staercke) and brother (Thomas Coumans) warn her about giving too much of herself, but it falls on deaf ears as she rapidly deteriorates. Whether or not it was director/co-writer Michaël R. Roskam intention to make a cautionary tale about the sacrifice of women, this second half certainly comes across that way.

If “Racer and the Jailbird” stayed in its lane and remained an upbeat, sexy heist film, it may have had a chance, but instead it veers into doom and gloom territory, leading to a messy final act. Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos have great chemistry, hopefully they can do another film that doesn’t involve their being separated.

Racer and the Jailbird” opens May 4 in select theaters.