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Lupin the Third (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"Can't quite make such an animated character work in live action."
3 stars

The characters in this live-action take on the "Lupin III" comics has enough English-language dialogue on the one hand and a filmmaker in who has worked in both Japan and Hollywood on the other that one wonders to what extent the studio had visions of a global release that never really happened (it doesn't appear to have had theatrical or home releases in the United States at all). That would serve to at least partially explain why this feels like a movie trying to serve multiple audiences and likely not satisfying any; for all that this has always been a flexible franchise, it seems stretched into directions that don't entirely work.

It opens with a handful of master thieves - Lupin (Shun Oguri), Fujiko (Meisa Kuroki), Pierre (Kim Jun), Michael (Jerry Yan), Jiro (Shunichi Yamaguchi) - converging on the private Hougang Museum of Art in Singapore, aiming to steal the Medal of Zeus, said to have been awarded in the first Olympics. Interpol inspector Koichi Zenigata (Tadanobu Asano) tracks them to Hong Kong, suspecting them to be part of a criminal organization known as "The Works", led by Brit Thomas Dawson (Nick Tate). A betrayal at the meeting has the group's most precious treasure stolen, with Lupin and allies chasing the traitor to Thailand, where he intends to reunite the two halves of the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra. Retrieving that will require Lupin and company to pull off their biggest heist yet, breaking into the apparently impregnable Ark operated by security mogul Pramuk (Nirut "Ning" Sirichayna).

I'm not familiar enough with the original manga by Kazuhiko Kato (best known by the pen name "Monkey Punch") or the various animated productions to know to whether Dawson and The Works are original to this version or pulled from the source material; in either case, director Ryuhei Kitamura and screenwriter Rikiya Mizushima are building a sort of hybrid version where some situations are long-established, some character are meeting for the first time, and some appear to be new introductions (a crew didn't need a hacker when Lupin first appeared in 1967). Usually, when building a new version like this, filmmakers will put the title character at the center of the story, but while Lupin is doing a lot of running around, the story is never really about him; he make be looking to avenge a mentor, but he's two or three steps away from the stuff that is making everything happen. It's a weird decision when this may be one's only shot at this sort of property.

Their take on the character is a bit less whimsical than others' and closer to a straight crime picture, and it's a tough fit at times; it's the sort of comic book movie where the costume department uses a lot of black leather even if they do eventually drift toward more iconic looks. The movie actually starts to loosen up a bit when Go Ayano shows up as the most serious-minded character; his Goemon Ishikawa is basically a ronin samurai dropped in the middle of a modern heist story and his incongruous presence means that Kitamura and the cast can only play it so straight from there forward. Shun Oguri and co-stars Tetsuji Tamyama, Meisa Kuroki, and Tadanobu Asano start looking like they're having fun as Lupin and his crew start planning a flashy, elaborate heist and they start looking the part, even if Oguri, like most human beings, doesn't really have the rubber face necessary to really capture Monkey Punch's art.

Oguri's capable when it comes to action but never seems quite so assured as Go Ayano and Meisa Kuroki, which shows in not just how many fight scenes those two get compared to the rest of the cast, but how easily Ayano seems to move during the required car chase when Goemon is climbing out of the vehicle to dispatch someone with a sword. For all that Kitamura first rose to international fame on the back of action that was grander and faster-paced than many of his local peers, that part of this movie is a fairly mixed bag, like he often can see how a fight is supposed to go and be paced but can't quite get the shots he needs to put it together, although the times when all the pieces do fit are a lot of fun. It's frustrating that the moments that feel like they should be big turning points with action boosting the emotion of the scene are often scripted as fairly drab.

It's not really a surprise, then, that this never became the global hit that Toho was likely hoping for, even with the international locations and dialog that runs much more smoothly than is usually the case when people are using English as a common language. It doesn't quite treat the things fans love about "Lupin III" as weaknesses, but it seldom fully embraces them, too often winding up in no-man's-land.

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originally posted: 10/21/20 15:17:27
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Directed by
  Ryuhei Kitamura

Written by
  Ryuhei Kitamura

  Shun Oguri
  Tetsuji Tamayama
  Gou Ayano
  Meisa Kuroki
  Tadanobu Asano

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