‘Lupin’ Is a Thrilling Crime Caper and the Best New Show on Netflix

Nick Schager
·6 min read
Emmanuel Guimier/Netflix
Emmanuel Guimier/Netflix

As the BBC’s Sherlock confirmed, there’s great binge-watching potential in updating iconic characters and stories for contemporary audiences. Enter Lupin, a new Netflix hit (out now) from George Kay and François Uzan that puts a modern spin on the famed French “gentleman thief” Arsène Lupin, who here serves as the inspiration for a Senegalese immigrant in Paris determined to avenge his father’s death by orchestrating a plot involving cunning disguises and deceptions. Channeling its source material through a present-day tale rife with class and racial tensions, it’s a suspenseful streaming effort that speaks to—and proves—the enduring viability of classic genre literature. And in Omar Sy’s lead performance, it heralds the international arrival of a potential superstar.

An acclaimed actor in his native France who’s so far made only minor inroads in America, Sy plays Assane Diop, a young man whose love for his father Babakar (Fargass Assandé) is matched by his fondness for the works of Maurice Leblanc, whose numerous Lupin novels (penned from 1905-1939) so enchanted Assane as a teenager that they became the literal template for his life. That comes in handy during adulthood, when Assane endeavors to steal Marie Antoinette’s “Queen’s Necklace” from the Louvre on the night it’s being auctioned to the public by its owners, the Pellegrini family. When Assane was a kid, his dad Babakar worked as the driver for the Pellegrinis. However, Babakar was rewarded for his service by being framed for the theft of the Queen’s Necklace by Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre), and then tricked into signing a confession. Babakar subsequently committed suicide in prison, and years later, Assane still blames the Pellegrinis—who include Hubert’s wife Anne (Nicole Garcia) and his daughter Juliette (Clotilde Hesme)—for his innocent father’s demise.

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The first part of Assane’s vengeful plan entails pilfering the royal piece of jewelry, which director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me) depicts with the kind of glossy razzle-dazzle—all unnecessarily twirling and roving camerawork—that is the filmmaker’s trademark. The series’ debut focuses on that theft, which Assane carries out with the (manipulated) aid of a trio of criminals to whom Assane owes money. Lupin details their heist with brisk forward-momentum, all while flashing back to fill in necessary contextual tidbits about Assane’s relationship with Babakar, a kind and thoughtful individual who preached the value of education and the greatness of Leblanc’s tales. Those sequences lay out the class (and racial) divide that defines Assane’s circumstances. Though the show’s have-vs-have-nots dynamics aren’t handled with great subtlety—the rich are mostly presented as condescending, ruthless, and self-interested cartoons, particularly Hubert—they provide a welcome measure of real-world conflict to Assane’s fantastical adventure.

In addition to his daddy issues, Assane is routinely consumed with his ex Claire (Ludivine Sagnier)—a “soulmate” he’s known since high school, as additional flashbacks elucidate—and their teenage son Raoul (Etan Simon), whom Assane introduces to the wonders of Lupin. It’s too bad that the talented Sagnier isn’t given much to do other than act vexed at Assane for bailing on his parental commitments. Still, Assane’s family life does add another layer of complication to a story that moves swiftly from one scheme to the next. Each episode features Assane carrying out a phase of his plan in a novel way—misdirection, costumes, and techno-wizardry are all part of his criminal arsenal—and Leterrier and his fellow directors (Angelica Astilla and Marcela Said) keep the proverbial pedal to the metal throughout, thereby zipping past any less-than-plausible plot twists that appear along the way.

Comprising only five chapters (the second half of the premiere season will debut at an unknown future date), Lupin also fixates on a group of cops hot on Assane’s trail, one of whom, Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab), swiftly deduces that Lupin is his suspect’s spirit animal. Their efforts are doomed to fail, of course, because Assane is always one step ahead of everyone in his orbit, and Sy embodies him with just the right mixture of dashing charisma, wily intelligence, and personal failings. Like his idol Lupin, he’s a Robin Hood-ish crook who uses his shady skill-set to punish the wicked and attain justice for the wronged and downtrodden, and Sy—a burly actor who nonetheless moves with grace—exudes an undeniable charm and sex appeal that’s energized by the very cockiness that also threatens to get him into trouble, both with his adversaries and with Claire and Raoul, who are often forced to take a backseat to his illicit machinations.

The further Lupin spins its web, the more the Pellegrinis’ conspiracy turns out to extend far beyond what they did to Babakar. While those revelations don’t always resound with the force that Kay and Uzan intend—thanks to smoking-gun clues that magically materialize, and swift pacing that neuters their sense of import—Lupin’s lust for righteous revenge remains a sturdy foundation upon which the series is built. Moreover, the proceedings’ political element is effectively underplayed; it’s always clear that Assane is dedicated to taking down “the elites” who sneer at and exploit anyone below them (especially non-white Senegalese men such as himself), but the show eschews preachiness by only sporadically making overt mention of its larger concerns.

Lupin’s most powerful social commentary comes via its premise, which imagines French culture (in the character of Lupin) being embraced, resurrected and embodied by an immigrant who instinctively views it as his own. Kay and Uzan’s series is a portrait of the 21st century melting pot, and the way in which long-standing national traditions and myths are revitalized and reborn courtesy of newly diversified populations. That makes it a genre work with an inherent progressive streak, its forward-thinking ideas about French identity and heritage baked into its conceit (and narrative), and yet never thrown in its audience’s face.

Even better than that careful balancing act, however, is Lupin’s lively, frothy crime-caper energy, which is primarily attributable to the magnetic Sy. With a big smile, a hunched posture that masks his imposing physical stature, and a dapper style that underscores his suaveness—even when he’s just wearing a trench coat, an orange hat or a pair of Nikes—the actor makes the absolute most of this headlining vehicle. His Assane may operate in the shadows, but Sy seems destined for the Hollywood spotlight.

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