Stylish and sleek, the French series “Lupin” on Netflix carves its way through the corridors of power and wealth — as well as the less glamorous back passageways where support staff are relegated and, for the show’s central character, usefully overlooked — with an entertaining confidence. The game is afoot.
It begins with a heist at the Louvre and the show wastes no time, offering up an “Ocean’s 11”-worthy PowerPoint detailing the caper within the first 10 minutes of the first episode. But the story that unfurls reveals itself to be more than just a caper, but an amiable lone-wolf revenge thriller that’s as nimble and light on its feet as its central character, the gentleman thief Assane Diop.
Played with a long-legged, broad-shouldered grace by Omar Sy, Assane has molded himself into a unknowable figure whose entire existence is guided by the exploits of the popular fictional French literary character Arsene Lupin — think Sherlock Holmes meets Robin Hood — created by the writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905.
Leblanc conceived of a man whose sly and puckish intelligence gave him the ability to anticipate human behavior, and who relied on his smooth manners as cover for all kinds of deceptions including sleight of hand. The character was subsequently featured in more than a dozen novels and there have been riffs on the trope ever since if only because there is so much fun to be had inverting the conventions of your typical detective story, and can be seen in everything from Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar novels, aka The Saint, to shows like “Leverage,” to the recurring Hercule Flambeau character on the cozy British mystery series “Father Brown.”
“Lupin” gives that template a contemporary Paris setting, where Assane and his father emigrated from Senegal in the ’90s. Flashbacks to Assane’s teenage years lay the groundwork for his current obsession, a quest that boils down to that oldie but goodie: This time it’s personal. (The first five episodes of the season are currently available; five more will premiere at a later date but Netflix has not announced the details as of yet.)
One of the more deft elements of the show is the way it alludes to racism and bias in ways that are subtle but unmistakable. Assane, who is Black, can glide past security into a ritzy invite-only auction for a multi-million dollar necklace but when he actually puts in a bid, there’s an awkward pause to confirm his (faux) identity and net worth. He is the only person whom this happens; the silvery-haired white men in attendance are never once so discreetly vetted. It’s a witty, understated observation that grounds “Lupin” in the real world. Among strangers, he is forever underestimated and uses this to his advantage.
Sy has the purposeful stride of Idris Elba on “Luther,” minus the perpetual scowl and he’s playing a man who is not so much a master of disguise as a master of hiding in plain sight (my favorite is his brief turn as a dorky IT guy) but he is also a master of planning; at one point during a clandestine meeting in a public space, several doppelgangers wearing the same outfit as Assane converge at just the right moment, allowing him to escape from the police undetected, bringing to mind the similarly clever bowler hat scene in 1999’s “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
“Lupin” comes from creators George Kay (whose past credits include “Killing Eve”) and Francois Uzan (of the series “Family Business,” also on Netflix, about a marijuana coffeeshop in France) and a quick note about Netflix’s default setting, which delivers the show dubbed in English: There’s something weirdly disorienting to hear flat, American-accented English coming out of the mouths of these very obviously French characters. Only belatedly did it occur to me that I could tinker around and switch the audio to the original French, with English subtitles and I would recommend doing this, it’s a far better experience than the third party interloper vibe that gets between actor and audience when there’s dubbing. Plus, I’m a big fan of the aural pleasure to be had when listening to other languages.
Richly envisioned (including a gorgeous shot of Assane escaping over the rooftops of Paris) the show is continually asking: Who is the real criminal, our Lupin-esque protagonist or all these less than honorable types he targets for wealth redistribution? All of the scenes of bungling police could be cut and I would miss them which speaks to a larger issue here; the ancillary characters aren’t half as interesting as they could be. Even so, the ingredients here work like gangbusters; only a French show would dress a henchman in a casually fashionable infinity scarf and trench coat over a black T and white jeans. It’s a great look!
Ultimately, it is Sy’s Bond-ian elegance and understated charisma that keeps you keyed in.
The first season of “Lupin” is split into two parts; the first five episodes are available now. Netflix has yet to announce when the second half will hit the streaming service.