Lupin III or Lupin the Third is a title that should definitely ring a bell if you are a fan of animation movies and if you are an Anime/Manga- fan and the name tells you nothing, the time has come to hand in your geek cred card.
“Lupin III” is the name of the main character of a Manga-saga by “Monkey Punch” (the pen name of Manga-artist Kazuhiko Katõ) that was adapted into several Anime- movies and -series, most notably into the Hayao Miyazaki- directed Anime-classic Castle of Cagliostro (Kariosutoru no shiro) from 1979.
At the centre of those works are the exploits of the eponymous master thief, who is the grandson of Arséne Lupin, a fictional gentleman thief who was the hero of a series of popular pulp novels from the early 20th century, written by Maurice Leblanc.
Usually Lupin III and his friends are involved into some kind of “impossible heist” that has to be executed by making use of Arsene’s brilliance, his friends’ special capabilities and a load of inventive gadgets, while their foes from both sides of the law, among them Lupin’s arch nemesis, Interpol- inspector Koichi Zenigata, try to foil their plans.
Now it was just a matter of time till a live-action adaptation was due. Actually there has already been one, namely Lupin III- Strange Psychokinetic Energy from 1974 of which I could sadly not get a hold of. But it was re-adapted again in 2014, directed by Ryuhei Kitamura and that’s the movie I want to review here.
Lupin III (Rupan Sansei, 2014) tells the story of how the infamous team of thieves around Lupin was formed. In the beginning, all the members are independently active as thieves, but work for the same secret organization, called “The Works”, holding up a sense of friendly competition among each other. One day though one of them, Michael (Jerry Yan) decides to betray “The Works” and robs one of its most precious treasures, a necklace that was once worn by Cleopatra herself, in an assault that tragically leads to the killing of the organization’s philanthropic boss.
Thus, Lupin and two of his peers, the mysterious Fujiko Mine (Meisa Kuroki) and the master marksman Jigen (Tetsuji Tamayama) team up, later on joined by the Samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII (Gõ Ayano), to retrieve the jewellery and exact revenge on Michael. The stakes are raised when they are confronted with a much bigger villain and attract the attention of the slightly inept inspector Zenigata (Tadanobu Asano).
Director Kitamura’s resume is pretty solid, from the frenetic Zombie-splatter fest Versus (2000) and the action laden Manga-adaptation Azumi to (2003) his splendid Godzilla- Final Wars (2004), his films have always been highly entertaining, even his Hollywood debut (something that seems to be an insurmountable artistic hurdle for a lot of Asian directors, see Tsui Hark, Wong Kar-Wei or Hideo Nakata) Midnight Meat Train (2008) was a success, leading to his assignment to direct the underrated slasher No One Lives (2012). His energetic style was once akin to that of the young Sam Raimi, but like his American counterpart, he apparently chose to abandon the anarchy and go the route of mildly entertaining mainstream movies. You could say that Lupin III is his Spiderman.
Looking at the Japanese mainstream movies of the last 10 years, they have gradually become as mediocre and toothless as most Hollwood outputs of that era. Like in Tinseltown, uninspired scripts, the overuse of (bad) CGI and the plundering of the pop-cultural back catalogue has ruined the quality of a many films, a development that had also reached Hong Kong cinema before.
Considering that and the fact that recent Anime- or Manga- live-action adaptations from Japan have turned out to be less than stellar (Space Battleship Yamato from 2010, for example or Casshern from 2004), the mediocrity of Lupin III is no surprise.
A lot of the common mistakes Hollywood productions still repeatedly make when adapting animated movies/series -or regular TV-series, for that matter- have found their way into Lupin III as well, fortunately not all of them.
The choice to conceptualize the plot as an “origin story”, was unnecessary, as the characters are uncomplicated archetypes and we don’t really need to know all the tedious details of the story why they decided to form a team. Another thing that irked me was that Lupin’s role was reduced from the main character almost to that of a side character. A lot of screen time is wasted with the tragic back story of the treacherous Michael and it does not add anything to the plot or even his characterization.
The film is also a tad too long with its running time of over 120 minutes, with many scenes being pure filler material, which made me long for the tight pacing of the Miyazaki-movie and the series. In terms of plot, Lupin III does not bring anything new to the table, it’s an uninspired rehash of heist movie cliches, with characters double-crossing and double-double-crossing each other while the interest of the audience is waning. Not that the execution of the heists would be any better, with many ridiculous gadgets that have not been introduced before serving as Deus ex Machina at several occasions, hackneyed plans and a good dose of eye-roll inducing super-hacking that moves the plot forward again after it just put the heroes into a hopeless situation. Again, this just makes you miss the analogue charm of the old Lupin III -gadgets. And while we’re at it, this would have been a justified opportunity to revel in a retro look for a change.
Lupin’s yellow Mini Cooper is all that is left from the old school-look, the rest has been replaced with sleek Mission: Impossible tech and groan-worthy post-Matrix leather outfits (during the heist scenes). While I can understand that they had to abandon Lupin’s glorious 70s sideburns, I cannot explain why anybody thought it would be a good idea to dress him with a red velvet jacket and shiny leather pants.
Beyond that, the action scenes left me cold. The fights are well-realized, but not outstanding and the sloppy editing and the bad lighting made it hard to recognize what’s going on at many points. Overall, the visuals are disappointing. Lupin III was shot digitally and not enough effort went into hiding that fact. The images are flat and cold, even the way too overdone colour-correction does not lend them any warmth. In many indoor and nighttime scenes, the lighting is too dark, casting shadows over the faces of the actors and straining the eyes of the audience. I felt reminded of the look of several DTV- productions of recent, which should not happen in the case of a big mainstream- event movie (at least that’s what it was in Japan).
Coming to the most important questions that many fans of the original will have: Can the characters live up to their drawn counterparts? I am able to sufficiently answer that to a certain degree only, as I have just seen the Miyazaki- movie and a few episodes of the original series.
Shun Oguri as the titular hero does not make much of an impression. His interpretation is far too restrained, compared to the pompous swag of his two-dimensional counterpart. The subtle sleaziness of the character has already been toned down for Castle of Cagliostro and there is nothing left of it in this film, his flirt with Fujiko remains harmless. Speaking of Fujiko, actress/singer/model Meisa Kuroki cannot fill this character with life either, most of the time she is just annoying.
Not as annoying as Tadanobu Asano though, who hams it up with his painful performance as inspector Zenigata. Jerry Yan sleepwalks as Michael through the film. The roles of Jigen and Goemon are so small and nondescript that the actors are unable to put their stamp on them. Fun fact: The Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm, who played the cruel Lieutnant Chang in Only God Forgives (2013), has a small part as a much nicer policeman.
In the end, the film is barely saved by director Kitamura’s directorial ability to hold our just interest long enough, despite the almost random plot, the fact that a lot of the original’s humour was omitted to make place for cringe-worthy high-tech shenanigans and the pale performances. Several exotic filming locations, among them Bangkok, Tokyo and Singapore, prevent the film from becoming a total bore.
It is in no case an adequate live action- adaptation, but it is not worst out there either- which is admittedly not saying much. I watched the film yesterday and I suspect I could not have written this review any later, which should tell you how memorable it is.
More fun, more adventure and first and foremost, more Lupin the next time (a sequel is announced) please!
The film is currently only available as import.