AKA: Lupin III
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Writer: Mataichiro Yamamoto, Monkey Punch
Cast: Shun Oguri, Meisa Kuroki, Gou Ayano, Tadanobu Asano, Tetsuji Tamayama, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Thanayong Wongtrakul, Kim Jun, Jerry Yan, Nirut Sirichanya, Nick Tate, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Yuka Nakayama
Running Time: 133 min.
By Paul Bramhall
When director Ryuhei Kitamura hit the scene in 2000 with his low budget zombie kung fu hybrid, Versus, critics were quick to announce the arrival of a new talent on the Japanese movie scene, and it was easy to see why. Versus had a certain energy about it that belied its humble budget, and it was great to see Japan once again returning to the fight movies that guys like Sonny Chiba and Yasuaki Kurata had made famous during the 70’s.
However, given access to bigger budgets and brought into the fold of the Japanese studio system, Kitamura seemed to lose his creative voice in the movies that came out after, whether it be mis-fires like Alive, or trying to put his own spin on one of Japan’s most recognizable icons with Godzilla: Final Wars. In the late 2000’s he decided to leave Japanese shores and head to the US, during which time he made Midnight Meat Train and No One Lives, both serviceable horror thrillers, before finally returning once again to Japan with the 2014 release of Lupin the Third.
Lupin the Third is one of Japan’s most enduring and well known Manga characters, a half French half Japanese thief who robs from the rich, his zany adventures have been entertaining audiences for close to 50 years. Bringing the character to the screen in a live-action movie was no doubt always going to be a challenge, but if anyone would be up to the task, it makes sense that the responsibility was given to Kitamura. It’s a shame then, that instead of plugging into the Manga and trying to bring it to life, the final product comes across as a poorly executed retread of the 2012 Korean blockbuster The Thieves.
It would probably take up the rest of the review to list all of the identical similarities that exist both in the plot and the characters, from the pan-Asian cast to whole plot revelations (most glaringly, a character who we believe to be a bad guy is eventually revealed to be not what he seems, and ends up teaming up with his former cohorts to take on a bigger threat who was responsible for his fathers death many years ago). It’s ironic that a movie about thieves would steal so many ideas from another, but this is the least of Kitamura’s problems.
The plot is ridiculously convoluted, but goes something like this. Lupin, played by Shun Oguri of Crows Zero fame, is part of a group of thieves called The Works. Other members are played by sassy cat burglar Kuroki Meisa, and Shuichi Yamaguchi. For the sake of appealing to Korean and Chinese audiences as well, we also have Kim Joon, most well known for his role in the Boys Over Flowers K-drama, and Jerry Yan from Chinese boyband F4, thrown into the mix. Oh, and a samurai character called Goemon joins them somewhere along the way, played by Go Ayano, for no other reason than he’s obviously also from the Manga.
They decide to steal a priceless piece of jewelry, but Yan betrays the group, killing the father figure of The Works, and reveals his plan to sell it to an evil Thai antique collector played by Nirut Sirichanya. He’s protected by a couple of Asian cinemas recent bad guy recruits – Thanayong Wongtrakul, who is instantly recognizable as the Vietnamese knife fighter from A Man from Nowhere, and Rhatha Phongam, who played the scantily clad fighter No. 20 in Tom Yum Goong 2. On top of all this, you have Tadanobu Asano playing the Japanese inspector on the tail of Lupin the Third, who teams up with a Thai colonel played by Vithaya Pansringarm, fresh from playing roles in both Benny Chan’s The White Storm and Isaac Florentine’s Ninja: Shadow of a Tear.
Nothing really makes any sense, with the nonsensical nature of the plot climaxing when the stolen item is put up for official public auction in front of a large audience (!?). But at 133 minutes, the plodding script certainly tries to make things seem cohesive through several needlessly lengthy scenes of characters explaining what’s going on to each other. It’s almost like Kitamura forgot he’s working in a visual medium, and that he could actually explain events that are going on by showing us them, rather than watching two characters sit across a table talking to each other in scenes which lack any kind of tension or immediacy.
Another big issue with having characters constantly explaining the plot to each other is that, for reasons unknown, over 90% of the movies dialogue is spoken in English. While I have nothing but admiration for non-native English speakers completing a whole movie in a language not their own, unfortunately there are too many times when it just doesn’t work. The intonation of words is off on more than one occasion, sometimes the punctuation of sentences is missing all together, and most of all, too often the actors look like they’re concentrating on getting their lines correct, rather than delivering the emotion that’s behind them. Of everyone, it’s Jerry Yan who comes off the worse, at one point delivering a particularly important line by splitting it up into three disastrous stop – start sentences, which makes the whole scene laughably bad.
Lupin the Third crams in a lot of action into its bloated runtime, as it should, but again it’s all poorly recycled from other sources. The need for many of Japan’s mainstream movies to be TV friendly, so that they can be shown as holiday specials for all the family on the studio owned TV channels, further proving to be a detriment to a once great movie industry. The result here is that we’re essentially left with the Hallmark Channel versions of the back seat car fight from The Raid 2, the Donnie Yen vs. Wu Jing fight from Sha Po Lang, and the car chase from The Matrix Reloaded. There’s barely a drop of blood, or indeed a single ounce of anger, on display anywhere. It’s a shame that Japan’s mainstream output has become so diluted that it’s now just a limp wristed reflection of what it once was.
Still, even without the need to remain as safe as possible, Kitamura make some mistakes of his own. At one point he takes separate fight scenes involving two characters taking on multiple attackers, and plays them out split-screen. Which one are you supposed to look at!? Thankfully you wouldn’t be missing much if you decided not to look at either, but it’s this kind of bad film making which proves that Kitamura seems to have lost touch with what makes a good movie. Top all this off with a completely mis-placed mellow jazz soundtrack, that even plays over some of the action scenes, and ultimately what’s supposed to be an exciting live action version of a fast paced and eclectic Manga, is yet another watered down, overly drawn out, damp squib of wasted time and talent from Japan.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3/10