Lupin III: Dead or Alive

It's hard to hate Lupin. Anime characters come and go, but he is one of the most stable and familiar faces to fans of Japanese animation worldwide. He's not the most popular -- this craze or that usually sells the most posters and plushies and whatnot. But reliability over several decades is nothing to sneeze at. And while a similar character, James Bond, has gotten makeovers through the years, Lupin still plugs away, his same hot-fingered, hot-blooded self. You watch a Lupin movie, you know generally what you are going to get.  Some explosions, some thefts, some comedy, occasionally a mild bit of lechery...all part of the package.

But with a crew of static characters who don't change (excepting within the brilliant Lupin III: First Contact), what matters most is how the movie is put together. Is the central plot interesting? Does the audience have to suspend its disbelief too much? Are the new characters engaging? And how well is it directed -- did the director make smart choices to keep the affair fresh?  With Lupin III: Dead or Alive, Lupin's mangaka Monkey Punch directs...which made me excited to see what he would do with a film version of his creation. But problematically, the script for this adventure is very weak, and its problems are highlighted by Monkey Punch's inability to punch it up.

Dead or Alive begins with a prison break just barely attached to the main plot of the story, much like a Bond teaser. When the real plot begins, Lupin and company travel to an island rumored to be loaded with loot. However, the place is one gigantic booby trap, and the threesome find themselves lucky to get away in one piece. The island itself belongs to a small country called Zufu. Zufu's ruled by General Headhunter, a dictator who murdered the head of the last regime and his son, Pannish, in order to get to the country's untold wealth. Problem is, he doesn't have access to the island either. The daughter of the man who developed the security system is held under guard, since she may know the way in...but clues also lie with Oleander, the policewoman who once loved Pannish. And when rumor has it that Pannish is back from the dead, Lupin must uncover all the secrets of Zufu in order to steal the untold wealth that beckons him.

Now for those who have seen other Lupin television films, this movie fits right in. The music and animation, while not top-notch, are reasonably good. There's little to distract you here, and it's old enough that the annoying CGI used in some of the more recent Lupin adventures doesn't pop up. While the character designs for the new players are unexciting, they work fine. And for those who are here to get "the Lupin package," you won't be disappointed. All the basics are here, and they hold up well enough.

But honestly, for a movie with Monkey Punch on board, you'd expect it to be a whole lot better.  A few reviews have noted that the dub on this show is excellent and wickedly funny, though wildly inaccurate.  I went for the subtitled version -- all I had available to me -- and that sense of humor didn't show up much. The dialogue is pretty flat in Japanese, so keep that in mind. Maybe the dub got rid of some of the annoying plot holes. Now other Lupin adventures have made up some pretty ridiculous stuff...that's not the problem here.

In Dead or Alive, everything is disjointed. Different portions just don't connect, and some parts are just dull. Various characters are completely unnecessary and serve only to pad the running time. Unfortunately, large sections in the middle don't feature Lupin or his crew at all. But perhaps worst of all, the ending is a cheat. While I won't spoil it entirely, suffice it to say that one of the surprises in the finale actually makes much of the shenanigans we've watched completely pointless. While the casual viewer might not notice, I did, and I was miffed. Oh, and that whole thing about "dead or alive" in the show's title?  There's a reward placed on Lupin's head, but apparently he's not important enough to garner anything but a couple of bounty hunters who are quickly dispatched. There are good bits here, but many of them are poorly intertwined.

But with those things said, this isn't terrible either.  The opening sequence is great, and whenever the gang is on the island, the show is engaging. There are a few classic Lupin moments here and there worth seeing. While he didn't feature in the movie enough, I enjoyed Crysis, Headhunter's henchman. A forgiving viewer who wants more Lupin will be just fine.

Normally, I go into a review with a rating already in mind, and this time was no exception. But even as I've been writing, I've been wavering. I honestly don't know whether to recommend Dead or Alive to you or not. I doubt I'll watch it again, though bits were lots of fun. I haven't seen the dub, which some have said makes the movie. I'm just right on the line on this one. Consider it a rental; when you've got some space in your Netflix queue, if you're a Lupin fan, it might be worth a spin. Maybe.

Lupin III: Dead or Alive -- profanity, violence -- B-