Art thief adventure series Lupin III and frenetic cult director Ryuhei Kitamura (Godzilla: Final Wars, Versus) seems like it could be a match made in heaven. Kitamura is known for his energetic, reality defying, somewhat gaggy but exceedingly enjoyable action movies, and Lupin is known for his energetic, law-enforcement defying, seemingly impossible but somehow charming art heists. The combination in this 2014 live action movie makes for a moderately fun crime thriller that is never too serious and captures some, if not all, of what made the Lupin series so successful since its creation in 1969.
Based on Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief created by famous French author Maurice LeBlanc (whose popularity rivals British contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle) and appropriated in Japan by the interestingly pseudonymed Monkey Punch, Lupin III isn’t just a version of Leblanc’s Lupin, he’s his grandson, a fact that proved slightly problematic in the intellectual property stakes outside of Japan until the copyright eventually expired. Most people would of course recognise Lupin under Miyazaki’s hand (The Castle of Cagliostro), but the Lupin TV series was actually well under way when Miyazaki finally got involved. And anyone who’s seen those versions, or any of the animated movies, will know that one thing synonymous with Lupin other than daring heists is the beatnik, stove-pipe, slicked back style of the sixties. So is Lupin still Lupin in the techy, modern world of Twenty First Century crime?
I’ll admit, if you’re a big fan of the existing franchise you may not be able to quite forgive the changes. Even if you’re a casual fan, it will take a little while to get used to this seemingly modern felon. He still has the style, the arrogant wit, the charm, the infectious grin and the masochistic crush on Fujiko Mine. He even still has the suit, although the sideburns are gone, unfortunately. But, there’s something intrinsically bland about it all. Kitamura and his screenwriting team update Lupin’s playground, and while they still retain enough about Lupin to make it recognisable, the pandering that they’ve done to contemporary heist and action film clichés seems to slightly homogenise what they’ve retained from the original.
After the obligatory opening sequence and the convenient establishment of the main characters – Fujiko (Meisa Kuroki, Space Battleship Yamato) as the vixen, Michael Lee (Jerry Lin, Meteor Garden) as the one willing to screw over his team mates in order to win, and Lupin (Shun Oguri, Crows Zero, Sukiyaki Western Django) as the cool and direct master thief with a soft heart – it becomes apparent that the skills on display were just for play, a competition to see who will become head of The Works after the fatherly figure of Thomas Dawson (Nick Tate) passes. The crime family meeting however turns into another betrayal when Michael shows his true colours and steals the Necklace of Cleopatra. Lupin of course can’t countenance this kind of dishonor among thieves and immediately sets about getting a team together to go after the precious artifacts.
And so begins the real adventure, which to be perfectly honest perhaps should have been where the film started in the first place. Despite the obvious effort to feature the kooky, crazy and stylish action of the original material, the film drags a bit, a fact that the writers cover over by balancing somewhere between clichéd action and deliberately classic Lupin moments. There’s a little too much character establishment and not nearly enough get-to-the-point, and while some scenes have the kind of emotional weight and tension you tend to want out of a decent heist film (the closed-box buy sell in front of an audience of one percenters who apparently have no qualms about being present at the auction of stolen priceless artworks) the pace isn’t as even as it should be.
The fact that some things take after the original almost perfectly – Tetsuji Tamayama (Fressia, Goemon) as Jigen, Gou Ayano (Gatchaman) as the zen swordmaster Goemon, the awesome Tadanobu Asano (Rampo Noir, Mongol, 47 Ronin) playing an utterly brilliant Inspector Zenigata, and the little yellow Fiat, just to name a few – is a delightful and necessary inclusion, and the bad guys (Nirut Sirichanya as Pramuk) are villainous enough that the main drive of the plot is engaging enough. Some other things are a little too stereotyped though, and sure Kuroki may fill out a leather jumpsuit pretty well but her acting skills seem to be restricted to smirking, even at a funeral, and in an odd kind of way, that pretty much sums up the film – good looking, but lacking depth. It’s like they couldn’t decide whether to go slapstick or Oceans 11 and as a result waver somewhere in between, where there aren’t really all that many surprises.
Yes, Lupin III is entertaining, but only on a fairly shallow level, and with not nearly as much of Lupin’s original style. With an international cast and filming in Hong Kong, Singapore, The Philippines and Thailand as well as Japan, and with Monkey Punch as creative consultant on the script (that took, by the way, two and a half years to finish) and a director like Kitamura at the helm, you’d think the end product would have stood out a little (a lot) more from the pack. In the end Lupin III is a fun romp that doesn’t ask for much. Sadly, that’s exactly what you’ll give it.