Lupin III (Rupan sansei)
Japan (2014) Dir. Ryuhei Kitamura
It is not uncommon for the words “live action adaptation” to fill the hearts of many a comic book/cartoon/anime fan with dread, especially if the character or series in question is iconic or beloved. For the Japanese, Lupin The Third – the grandson legendary gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, created by French writer Maurice Leblanc – is such a character, enjoying much success in anime and manga. A live action film already appeared in 1974 so perhaps there is a reason why it would be another forty years before someone else had the grapefruits to try again.
Ryuhei Kitamaura returns to his native Japan for the first time since 2004’s messy Godzilla: Final Wars after an unimpressive stint in Hollywood, to bring Lupin III to the big screen again. Keen to modernise the characters and the various unique aspects within the diegesis of Monkey Punch’s creation, Kitamura presents an SFX heavy action packed slice of hokum with a glamorous ensemble cast to fill the iconic roles, buttressed by support from many international faces.
The plot is typically functional: a group of master criminals known as The Works converge at the house of their president Dawson (Nick Tate) to witness the opening of his collection of ultra rare and prized artefacts. Among them is the supremely expensive and highly prized Crimson Heart of Cleopatra, which is stolen when one of the members Michael Lee (Jerry Yan) stages a coup resulting in the death of Dawson.
A small coalition of master thief Arsène Lupin III (Shun Oguri), sexy vamp Fujiko Mine (Meisa Kuroki), dour gunslinger Daisuke Jigen (Tetsuji Tamayama), computer expert Pierre (Kim Jun) and stoic but lethal samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII (Gō Ayano) vow to hunt Michael down and reclaim the Crimson Heart. Meanwhile Interpol are after another master criminal Pramuk (Nirut Sirijanya) who they believe will be in the market for the Crimson Heart, so to kill two birds with one stone Inspector Zenigata (Tadanobu Asano) approaches Lupin to steal the crimson heart during the exchange to give Interpol all they need to arrest Pramuk.
Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Lupin III universe will raise an eyebrow at the liberties taken with the story. Even so, it is odd seeing established rivals Lupin and Fujiko working together harmoniously as a team when Fujiko is notoriously for relying exclusively on her own mettle unless it suits her needs. Similarly Zenigata lives for trying to bring Lupin to justice so the mere notion he would calmly approach him to broker a deal for his assistance is again against the whole dynamic of their relationship.
We can only assume, as a sequel is in development, that this suggests this film was intended as an introduction to the characters thus a little leeway was required to explain their actions in the coda. But this comes somewhat out of the blue having not been hinted at all throughout the previous two hours and even if it was a concession for established fans it creates an entirely different tone to what we had seen previously.
There are other incidents of Kitamura being too smart for his own good, the most egregious being an ostentatious set-up in which Pramuk and Michael conduct a supposedly private deal for the Crimson Heart in front of a live audience of fellow criminals in an amphitheatre! Granted they are locked in a large private soundproof chamber but even the most arrogant criminal doesn’t conduct his business in full view of hundreds of prying eyes!
Because crime is an international endeavour every corner of the globe is represented here but they all amazingly speak English – even when they are in the company of their own countrymen! With the cast being predominantly Asian we are therefore subject to some awkward “Engrish” hampered by delivery which can be charitably described as uncomfortable. If Kitamura was deliberately aiming to appeal to the international market, this was something of an own goal.
The explosive action scenes should satiate the popcorn flick crowd, full of plenty of explosions and quick cut fight sequences, although this is detrimental for those of us who want to focus on the actual fights and not have the visuals cut three times in a second. This is a particular annoyance during a brief skirmish between a bathrobe attired Fujiko and Michael’s sluttily dressed assassin Maria (Yuka Nakayama), spoiling what was clearly a nod to the ridiculousness of the fan service attire found in anime.
Indeed this is quite a huge hurdle which all live action adaptations struggle with, creating credible version of their cartoon predecessors. The aesthetic aspect is often the hardest to pull off with such distinctive characters to replicate and results are mixed here but the personalities are missing. Shun Oguri is lucky to get the Lupin look right and has a cheeky charm to him but doesn’t quite have that innate charisma and quick wit. Similarly Tetsuji Tamayama as the laid back but dangerous Jigen just looks bored most of the time and his appearance with his hat pulled over his eyes just doesn’t work in a modern setting.
Tadanobu Asano also experiences looking anachronistic as Zenigata in his beige mac and trilby but at least the performance is acceptable enough but lacking the hysteria of his animated counterpart. Finally we come to Fujiko Mine, the sexiest, sultriest, amoral, selfish and beguiling female thief on the planet. Meisa Kuroki definitely scrubs up well and fills out a tight fitting leather suit but again she just doesn’t have that innate charisma and dangerous edge Fujiko is known for.
As far as fun, bombastic single note action flicks go Lupin III delivers on that front, but loses its energy during its 132 minute run time, petering out on a rather anti-climactic note. It may wow those not familiar with Lupin and friends but those with prior knowledge many not appreciate everything on offer here. A valiant if flawed adaptation.