Netflix's Heist Series 'Lupin' Is the First Fun Streaming Surprise of the Year
This French riff on Maurice Leblanc's "gentleman thief" is a nimble, clever mystery.
Each episode of Netflix's new hit Lupin, a nimble caper series starring Omar Sy (The Intouchables) as gentleman thief Assane Diop, builds to the type of rug-pulling flashback that you might find at the end of an Ocean's movie. Disguises are ripped off; diamonds get pocketed; the dashing hero slips away, again. It's a classic heist-movie device that could get repetitive or predictable, but, luckily, Lupin, with its mercifully short five episode first season and its endlessly charming leading man, executes each reveal with a high degree of finesse. With a show like this, getting fooled is half the fun.
Last weekend, Lupin became the French-language series to grab a spot on the streaming service's Top 10 list in the United States, and, as of this writing, it's sitting towards the top alongside other recent streaming juggernauts like Bridgerton and Cobra Kai. Not bad for a series that probably wasn't on your radar a couple weeks ago. Besides its ability to trick an audience with bits of narrative deception and its not-too-stressful sense of mischief, the show also boasts an intriguing literary backstory that makes it especially pleasurable to dig into. Here's why Lupin is such a surprising delight.
Who is Arsène Lupin?Despite being right there in the title, Lupin is not the star of Lupin. Instead, the show focuses on Assane Diop (Sy), a daring thief in contemporary France with a son, an estranged ex-wife, and a bearded best friend who serves as a fence for his stolen goods. If you're used to shows named after their protagonist—see House, Monk, Bosch, et al.—you might be a little thrown off at first. So, the handsome guy in the thumbnail and on the poster isn't Lupin?
Don't worry: It's not as confusing as it may seem. In the world of the show, Assane's exploits are inspired by the clever feats of Arsène Lupin, a fictional character created by French novelist Maurice Leblanc. The first Lupin story, "The Arrest of Arsène Lupin," was published in 1905 and Leblanc went on to pen 17 novels and 39 novellas featuring the gentleman thief, known for using his gifts of trickery for good. Like George Clooney's roguish Danny Ocean—or the patron saint of good guy thieves, Robin Hood—he mostly choses worthy targets to catch in his web of deception.
Though Leblanc died in 1941, his famous character has gone on to appear in countless stories, movies, and television shows, including a 1932 Hollywood adaptation starring John Barrymore. Japanese artist Monkey Punch's popular manga Lupin III, first published in 1967, which follows the grandson of the gentleman thief, spawned multiple adaptations as well, including six anime series (most recently, 2018's Lupin the Third Part V), a 1983 laser disk arcade game called Cliff Hanger, and multiple animated feature films (most notably, The Castle of Cagliostro, the first movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki). However, Assane Diop seems to be focused primarily on the literary output.
What is Netflix's Lupin like?In Netflix's Lupin, Assane is first introduced to the Lupin books as a child by his father, Babakar, a Senegalese immigrant who worked as a valet for the Pellegrinis, a wealthy family that possesses a necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette. In the first episode, directed with just enough pedal-to-the-metal intensity by The Transporter filmmaker Louis Leterrier, Assane quickly assembles a team and steals the necklace from an auction by pretending to be both a janitor and a wealthy businessman. That initial robbery sets off the events of the rest of the series, which find Assane pursuing vengeance against the Pellegrinis for framing his father for a robbery years ago, an accusation that led to Babakar hanging himself in prison.
That pursuit of justice gives Lupin a driving narrative and an emotional center. The episodes are often outfitted with flashbacks to Assane's childhood, where we see him first learning the skills that make him into the formidable yet compassionate criminal mastermind he is today, and these bits of character history give the show an intricacy and depth that elevates it above your average caper-of-the-week adventure series.
Should you watch Lupin?If you enjoy a good heist and appreciate an elegant twist, go ahead and let Lupin steal a few hours of your time. At times, the show feels like a high-brow spin on the "Blue Sky"/"Characters Welcome" era of the USA Network, when shows like Psych, Burn Notice, Suits, and White Collar mixed comedy and suspense week after week. Lupin isn't dark, gritty, or disturbing. But it's not frivolous, either.
Most importantly, it's anchored by Sy, who American audiences might recognize from his roles in Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Jurassic World, and Inferno. Switching out of costumes and wigs, he's the type of charismatic performer who holds your attention no matter who he's supposed to play in a given scene. He's believable as a father playing video games with his son, a romantic lead flirting with his ex-wife, or as an action hero beating up a pesky villain on a train. Lupin excels as a showcase for him.
The other non-Sy parts of the show, particularly the storyline about the cop attempting to catch Assane by paging through old Leblanc novels, can be a little undercooked. (Similarly, the flashbacks, though essential to the plot, are written in a way that occasionally strains credulity.) Luckily, Lupin mostly keeps its attention on Sy, allowing him to carry the show as it leaps from one cliffhanger to the next. The character might have a heavy lineage, but he wears it lightly.
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