Lupin III: First Contact

After thirty years of a franchise, things can often get stale. It looks like Star Trek is on its last legs when we see the failure of the movie Nemesis and the diving ratings for Enterprise. Does this mean that the concept has no good stories left? Of course not. It just requires a new and fresh take that audiences will embrace. After years of substandard TV films, the Lupin franchise is poised to become relevant again with the film First Contact. An origin story that finally reveals how our heroes came together, I can honestly say that this film equals and even exceeds its exceptional brethren Castle Of Cagliostro and Plot of the Fuma Clan. It pays homage to the history of the program while adding in spice and flavorings that we've not yet seen in the animated adventures of Lupin. It is an absolute joy to watch for any Lupin fan.

As the film opens, a coin is tossed, a bet is won, and Jigen has to tell a knockout reporter how he first met Lupin. Reluctantly, he starts into the crazy tale...he was once working for a Mafioso as a bodyguard, and he caught Lupin attempting to steal a priceless tube that contains the secret behind a metal that's virtually indestructible. But Lupin is the first man ever too fast for Jigen's pistol, and Jigen makes it his goal to track down Lupin and have a duel with the one man that's bested him. Of course, Fujiko and Goemon are on the trail of the treasure too, but each for their own purposes. We are also introduced to Inspector Zenigata, who's on loan to the NYPD from the Tokyo police force to try and catch not Lupin but Fujiko! As the plot weaves through the streets of Manhattan, we are taken on a wild ride that will bring our intrepid gang of thieves together, despite their best efforts to stay lone wolves.

Every inch of Lupin III: First Contact looks gorgeous. Although it looks modern, using computerized cel shading and such to best advantage, I don't know when I've seen the gang look better. Although the actual action in Cagliostro is probably better animated, never have I seen the Lupin crew look so blessedly awesome. It fits right beside recent films like Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in terms of its skillful appearance.

Although it's a beautiful film, plenty of recent Lupin shows have looked great but lacked a real passion. First Contact gets it all just right. With enthusiasm we've missed for years, this film makes us fall in love with these characters all over again. Part of the reason for it is that we are not hidebound to a formula. Sure, it's still got the villain holding a valuable artifact our anti-heroes want to steal. But beyond that, the routine is surprisingly different.

There's a henchman who's even more dangerous than his boss, a Bond tradition that Lupin has heretofore rarely if ever picked up. There are actually two treasures involved. And more exciting, Jigen and Lupin and Goemon are as likely to be shooting (and slicing) into one another as they are into the lead heavy. Fujiko has always been an unpredictable factor, but here she's craftier, more scheming...and, for once, the movie finally gives Lupin an (off-screen) tryst with her, something that had been a part of the manga but never before seen within the animated version. It's also a blast to see Zenigata woefully out of his element trying to fit into NYC. It's darker and more violent than some of the most popular Lupin films, but it feels far more real--and far more fun.

And the music! If you've been a fan of the show for a while, you'll be awestruck by the soundtrack. Rather than creating a lackluster set of themes like the last few films, it resurrects the old TV themes and updates them. Just when a chase scene is getting good, the familiar music bursts in and plants a grin on your face. Ever so slightly corny, yes, but amazingly effective.

One final thought in its favor: it never lets up. It is consistently entertaining for its entire 91 minutes; in this one, even the credits count, since a final heist takes place while the names are running. Lupin films occasionally run too long. This one is almost too short simply because we're having too much fun.

As far as I know, Lupin III: First Contact has not yet been picked up for American distribution. The only reason I can imagine for this is that there is a brief scene where Zenigata gets himself lost in Harlem and makes a bunch of African-Americans irate by calling the area a "safari park". Although it just goes back to the previously established fact that Zenigata is an idiot when dealing with American culture, it's still a racial insult that means little in Japan but a good deal more here. I imagine the dialogue here will either be changed or snipped (depending on the distributor) when it arrives, but who knows?

But I am certain that this film will be brought to the U.S.; it's too good not to pick up. Although it's an excellent movie that would introduce anyone to the Lupin clan in a fabulous way, I'd almost recommend seeing some of the other Lupin shows first. There's a lot of material here that a first-time viewer will appreciate but that a seasoned devotee will absolutely adore. This is a Lupin groupie's delight, a love letter to the fans that captures the Lupin spirit perfectly. Most highly recommended.

Lupin III: First Contact -- violence, brief nudity, some minor adult themes -- A+