Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Family Affair

"She's bloody dying and all you bring us is lupins. All we've eaten mate for the last four bleeding weeks is lupin soup, roast lupin, steamed lupin, braised lupin in lupin sauce, lupin in the basket with sauted lupins, lupin meringue pie, lupin sorbet. We sit on lupins, we sleep in lupins, we feed the cat on lupins, we burn lupins, we even wear the bloody things!"
"Dennis Moore" (Monty Pyton)

Today: two Lupins for the price of one!

A reported robbery at the home of Gaston Gournev-Martin brings police detective Guerchard on the scene. He discovers the Duke of Chamerace in the neighbourhood and suspects that this so-called Duke is in fact the infamous thief Arsène Lupin. Despite Gournev-Martin's own testimony that the Duke of Chamerace is indeed who he claims he is, Guerchard still suspects that Arsène Lupin is behind the Duke's facade. When Arsène Lupin announces he is going to visit a party of the Duke, Guerchard (who is also told to solve the Lupin case within a week) decides to pay an unannounced visit, in the hopes of catching the phantom thief and proving that the Duke is nothing more than a thief in the 1932 film Arsène Lupin.

Arsène Lupin is based on the same-titled four-part play by Maurice Leblanc (literary father of Arsène Lupin) and Francis de Croisset. The play was also novelized by Leblanc himself with the same title. It is one of the Lupin stories I haven't read yet, so I started with the film without knowing what to expect. What is usually the case with Lupin: anything can happen.

And overall, I thought Arsène Lupin was quite amusing. The stars of the film are definitely the Barrymore brothers, who stand opposite each other as the Duke (John) and Guerchard (Lionel). There are the usual Lupin shenigans of one knowing the other is Arsène Lupin, yet not able to prove that and these confrontations come alive by the acting of the brothers. This tension is definitely the best part of the film. The story itself is a bit smaller than other Lupin stories, but that's because the original story is based on a play, I think. As a result, there are a lot of one-on-one scenes, and the story never reaches a really exciting climax.

Sure, there's a rather big heist planned at the end of the film, but it almost seems like an afterthought, as the tone is quite different from the rest of the story, and it never feels as big or brilliant a heist as we're used to in other Lupin stories. Like I said, I haven't read the original book/play, so I don't know what exactly is original to the film and what isn't, but I suspect the last part is a film original. I mean, I know the real Arsène Lupin isn't always a nice guy, but he would never threaten to sell a girl off into white slavery.

Anyway, an amusing watch with the gentleman-thief. And sometimes it's good to know the family trade stays alive after several generations. In Japan, Monkey Punch's Lupin III series has been a staple and important part of Japanese popculture since 1967. Lupin III is the grandson of Arsène Lupin, but while still a thief capable of the most amazing feats, he's usually less of a gentleman. Actually, it depends on who is writing him. Lupin III is everything from a James Bond to Robin Hood, depending on the production. Miyazaki Hayao (of Studio Ghibli)'s early film directing career includes The Castle of Cagliostro for example, an adventure film starring a heroic Lupin III. A more recent adventure of Lupin III is the crossover film Lupin III VS Detective Conan (2013), which pitted the legendary thief and his gang against the pint-sized detective.

Lupin III (2014) is a recent live-action film adaptation of the successful franchise. The Works is a international gang of thieves with several notable young up-and-coming members, including Lupin III (grandson of the legendary Arsène Lupin), Mine Fujiko (a femme fatale) and Jigen Daisuke (crackshot and bodyguard). One day, the Works is betrayed by one of its members who steals the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra, leaving Lupin and Jigen with no home and the desire to steal back what was taken from them. Lupin and Jigen soon make a name as internationally wanted thieves, who are occasionally helped and occasionally betrayed by Fujiko. They finally discover the whereabouts of the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra, which is being kept in a high-security building/safe called Ark of Navarone. Enlisting the help of several fellow thieves, including the swordsman Ishikawa Goemon, Lupin III and his gang set out to retrieve their loot, while being chased by Interpol detective Zenigata.

The franchise of Lupin III has been going on for a long time with a variety of productions, so I wasn't too surprised the live-action film was once again about the first time the Lupin gang (Lupin III, Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko) come together to work as a team. Over the history, the Lupin gang has had many first encounters, and all different, so I wasn't at all bothered at the Uncle-Ben-Must-Die-Again approach to the franchise.

But that doesn't mean that Lupin III is a good film. On paper, the story isn't that different from most Lupin III (animated) specials of the last couple of years: an action-packed film with a heist as its background setting (it's not really a heist film though, just an action flick). On screen, the story just didn't really work. And that's not because I don't like live-action adaptations of manga/anime source material. In fact, I can quite appreciate them (the recent Rurouni Kenshin trilogy was quite impressive for example). But the production team must get the tone right: a tone that fits with the franchise, but also with the live-action format. Lupin III fails to succeed here.

The action scenes are chaotic and shoddily taken: you are given a split second shot of something, only for it to be replaced by another shot at another angle / level of zoom of the same action, leaving the viewer in confusion of what the hell is going on. The more fantastic action scenes don't always work: a car chase scene on the highway hits the right tone most of the time, but then the presence of Goemon (a swordsman who can cut everything) kinda ruins the scene (in fact, I think that Goemon doesn't work at all in this film). Goemon cutting everything in a cartoon or comic, okay, but it just doesn't really translate well into the real world. The Rurouni Kenshin films struck a great balance between reality and slightly fantastic battles (jumping several meters up in the sky etc.) consistently throughout the three films, but the fairly realistic tone of Lupin III clashes with the cartoony comedy it occassionally also tries to utilize. A group of three enemy enforcers has the same problem: they are obviously inspired by cartoon designs (their clothing is ridiculous), whereas the rest of the cast is dressed in a fairly sensible manner (and still true to their original designs).

But Lupin III is also not a very surprising film. It's actually quite predictable, and again, that doesn't automatically mean it's bad (because I am quite OK with formulaistic approaches), but there was very little I truly enjoyed in this film running more than two hours. One of the few scenes I really loved is at the beginning, when Lupin and Jigen make their way out of a gang hideout with their loot on their backs: the scene is obviously inspired by the opening of The Castle of Cagliostro and gave me a big smile and the hope this could be something good, but alas.

Also, the film was shot with an international cast, and the version I saw had everyone dubbed in Japanese (including some of the Japanese actors!), which was kinda distracting. Oguri Shun did an excellent Lupin III though (who also did Kudou Shinichi in some of the Detective Conan live action TV specials. Meaning he would be both Lupin III and Shinichi if they would ever do a live-action Lupin III VS Detective Conan).

Lupin III is a rather mediocre adaptation of the famous franchise. It occassionally hits the right tones, but doesn't more often than it does. And I heard a sequel was already under production. Huh. I hope the next film manages to come up with an atmosphere that fits Lupin III and its own live-action framework.

Original Japanese title(s): モンキー・パンチ(原) 『ルパン三世』

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