The master thief-turned-detective Arsène Lupin may be unknown to the average American, but the “gentleman burglar” is a well-known character in French pop culture and perhaps the most famous thief in the world of literature, responsible for daring heists and even more daring escapes from the law. Created in 1905 by the French writer Maurice Leblanc, Lupin has been the subject of several novels, comics, stage plays, video games, films, and TV adaptations over the years. He’s crossed paths several times with the great detective Sherlock Holmes; appeared in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro and even starred in the 2016 hit video game Persona 5. Chances are, the average American has seen some iteration of the character at one point in time, even if unaware of his legendary status.
His latest iteration, a Netflix series aptly titled Lupin, takes its inspiration from the popular fictional character and gives it a contemporary twist. Created by George Kay (Criminal, Killing Eve), in collaboration with François Uzan, the five-episode first season stars Omar Sy (The Intouchables) as Assane Diop, a reimagined version of the titular thief.
Just to reiterate, Lupin doesn’t follow the character Lupin; instead, he appears as a source of inspiration for Diop, a Senegalese immigrant whose life was turned upside down as a teenager when his father (a chauffeur for the wealthy Pellegrini family), was falsely accused of stealing a necklace, one that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. Now, an adult, Assane tries to avenge his father who was framed and sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
The less you know about the Netflix series, the better; but it isn’t much of a spoiler to mention the story centers around the necklace that put Assane’s father in jail, causing him to commit suicide soon afterward. Twenty-five years later, Assane brainstorms a plan to steal the necklace that is being auctioned while working undercover as a janitor at the Louvre. But this job isn’t about making a big score that will send him into retirement; it’s personal. Assane has some unfinished business with the Pellegrini family, including the wealthy family’s daughter (Clotilde Hesme), for whom he still harbors strong feelings.
The series has received some critical backlash in France for its predictable plot, but Lupin is still a ridiculously enjoyable caper that buzzes along at an entertaining pitch from start to finish. It’s full of twists (some obvious, and some not so obvious) and almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger as we watch Assane pull off one job after the next. For the most part, Lupin is full of mystery thanks to Assane who is consistently surprising viewers. He’s not just a master thief; he’s a master of disguise, moving around unnoticed both in the shadows and in broad daylight.
At best, Lupin is a clever crime series that’s slick and consistently entertaining with big talents like Marcela Said and Louis Leterrier (Transporter) in the director’s chair. It has all the charm and magnetism you’d expect from the French and it relishes the cliches even as it freshens them with a dab of polish, wit, and pace. By the time the series gets to its cliffhanger fifth and final episode, you’ll find yourself wanting more.
One of the great strengths of Netflix’s Lupin is its charismatic lead. Sy’s natural charisma is hard to resist and the fact that he’s playing a thief out for justice, only adds to his appeal. Aiding his character is the fact that he’s a Senegalese immigrant since his race plays a large part in his story. His father was after all, a black man framed by a wealthy white family for a crime he didn’t commit. And even in the present day, Assane is met with the same prejudice as his dad was twenty-five years earlier— the only difference is Assane takes advantage of people’s ignorance by constantly outsmarting the white people who either don’t consider him an intellectual threat or by calling out strangers on their racist suspicions to allow him an easy escape. And that’s what makes Lupin different from prior adaptations. It does a great job of placing the popular story of the gentleman thief within today’s society, highlighting racial prejudice and police corruption.
Meanwhile, as the show jumps back and forth in time, it offers flashbacks of his youth and personal life, giving us a stronger understanding of his relationship with several members of the supporting cast. I’d argue watching Assane’s friendships grow is just as exciting (and emotionally rewarding) as watching the extraordinary feats of Lupin, including the jewel heist depicted in the show’s thrilling first episode. This series really does have heart. Don’t be surprised if the fourth episode leaves you in tears.
It’s not at the level of the French masterpiece Rififi, but Lupin is still a crackerjack crime series in which one episode alone is worth the price of your Netflix monthly subscription. I highly recommend it!
- Ricky D