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Lupin III: The First
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by Jay Seaver

"A new look for a classic character, and a lot of fun."
4 stars

I wonder to what extent audiences in the west (and particularly the United States) think of Lupin III as just the main character of the Hayao Miayazaki film that isn't in the boxed set rather than a franchise that has been going for 50 years and is very popular in his own right in Japan and elsewhere. It's fine; you've got to start somewhere and one of the fun things about it is that it's got the sort of all-but-nonexistent continuity where you can jump in anywhere - say, with this digitally-animated version from 2019 - and have a pretty good time.

The film opens with a prologue set just outside of Paris during World War II, as a legendary archaeologist's family escapes with his intricately-locked diary just ahead of the Nazis - though not far enough ahead. Twenty years later, a museum is including the Bresson Diary as part of an exhibit, with gentleman thief Arsene Lupin III announcing his plans to steal it at the last minute. Security guard Laetitia spots him, but secretly absconds with it herself, before Lupin's rival Fujiko Mine swoops in while the other two fight. She delivers it to her clients, French Professor Lambert and German true-believer Geralt, and that's just the beginning of the double-crosses on the way to unlocking the diary, which supposedly contains a map to Bresson's greatest find: The Eclipse device, a powerful energy source created by an ancient civilization that can generate seemingly limitless energy... or focus it into a deadly weapon.

This is my first Lupin III adventure (though I've had two others on my shelf for a while), and it serves as a very enjoyable introduction to Monkey Punch's gentleman thief and his friends: It leans into the bigger parts of their personalities without making them look foolish, hints at long-standing elements that make everything more cohesive without actually requiring the audience to know backstory, and generally does a good job of starting small but building into something grandiose. Screenwriter/director Takashi Yamazaki sets this particular adventure in a time period that's deliberately vague - there's an "over 10 years later" caption that probably covers at least fifteen, with a mix of technology and fashions from throughout the second half of the twentieth century - but draws on the best bits of several eras of globetrotting adventure.

It's also got some big and fun set pieces, particularly the early shell game with the diary that includes a niftily choreographed rooftop tussle (neither Lupin nor Laetitia really wants to fight and it's not really a chase) and a helicopter out of nowhere, as well a car chase that shows off the impossible skills of supporting characters Jigen and Goemon in a way that I gather is a hallmark of the franchise. The character designs make a nice transition to 3-D rendering - even Lupin himself, whose pinched monkey-like face and sideburns always look kind of off, looks pretty good - with the cartoony style feeling more or less like what many live-action manga adaptations trying to capture the style of the original artist are just missing.

It falls a bit short of being really impressive in some ways; for something that feels pitched to teens rather than younger kids, the English script at least could aim a little higher, although it can be tough to tell whether that's translation or voice-acting. The story ambitions seem to outstrip the maturity of the script on occasion, even before getting to some weird Hitler bits. The finale is also the sort of large scale action scene that maybe looks better on the small screen, like the filmmakers can't quite decide on the scale.

Mostly, though, it's a fun, fast-paced adventure with a zippy score, and that's good for an afternoon. There have been a lot of "Lupin III" productions over the decades, sometimes running in parallel, and if this winds up being the first of several made in this style, they'll be worthy additions to a list that's already had some noteworthy contributors.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33845&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/21/20 12:34:54
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  DVD: 12-Jan-2021

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