There is a tendency to call any project in which a male actor around a certain age puts on a suit and acts particularly charming or suave his audition to become the next James Bond. The same could be said of Omar Sy’s debonair turn in the new series Lupin, which premiered today on Netflix. Sy’s natural charisma is boundless, and the fact that he’s playing a thief—and a thief out for justice, no less—only adds to his appeal, as he cycles through disguises and pulls off trick after trick with panache. But Lupin is also so resolutely its own thing—and so tied to its own famous literary character—that any thought of 007 quickly fades into distant memory.
Created in 1905 by the French writer Maurice Leblanc, the character of the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin has since cropped up in countless iterations across the globe, including as the grandfather of the title character in the manga and anime series Lupin III, which was later adapted by Hayao Miyazaki in the 1979 film The Castle of Cagliostro, and even as a summonable “persona” in the video game Persona 5. Though not as well-known as, say, Sherlock Holmes or the aforementioned 00 agent, popular fascination with Lupin has persisted, not least because his title of “gentleman thief” seems to be an oxymoron. How could a gentleman also be a thief? The answer brings to mind an even older and more legendary outlaw: Like Robin Hood, Lupin may operate outside the purview of the law, but he uses his powers of thievery for good, fixing the authorities’ mistakes while evading their grasp.
To be clear, Lupin doesn’t appear in Lupin, or at least not in the flesh. Rather, he appears as an object of fascination for Assane Diop (Sy), who, as a teenager, received the first of the Lupin mysteries from his father. As an adult, he uses anagrams of Arsène Lupin as his pseudonyms—Paul Serrine, for instance—as he pulls off job after job. His latest target? A necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette, being auctioned off by the fictional Pellegrini family—and the supposed theft of which put Assane’s father in jail, causing him to commit suicide soon afterward.
This job—Assane’s last, of course—is not just about the necklace but uncovering the truth and making the man responsible for his father’s death finally face the music. The series, created by George Kay in collaboration with François Uzan, and with talents like Louis Leterrier (the first two Transporter movies) in the director’s seat, is nothing if not stylish. In his hideout, Assane sits in a chair shaped like a giant mask, and in the show’s very first episode, he pulls off a heist in the Louvre that ends with a car crashing through the inverted glass pyramid outside the museum. The “thief” aspect of the show has all the charm and magnetism of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, and the series’s more longform format (it consists of two parts of five episodes each) has the benefit of properly fleshing out the “gentleman” aspect of Assane’s character. As the show jumps back and forth in time, not just to explain parts of Assane’s plan but to fill in details about his youth and personal life, it doesn’t abandon the sense of fun to be had in stealing outrageously expensive objects in outrageously expensive schemes, but moves seamlessly into darker, heavier territory. As Monsieur Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre) becomes aware that some unseen force is mobilizing against him, he doesn’t shy away from violent retaliation.
The key thing that the series brings to the table, however, isn’t a part of Leblanc’s original work. Assane is a Senegalese immigrant, and his race plays a large part in the story. That his father was a Black man, “fresh off the boat,” according to the police, arguing his innocence against an affluent white man (who refers to him both as a “monkey” and as “that,” rather than as a human being) made his case an impossible one, and Assane, in his pursuit of justice, takes advantage of the fact that the (mostly) white people he’s duping either don’t notice him or, if they do, can be called on their racist suspicions. Early on, when Assane arrives at an expensive private school, he’s surrounded by white students, and most of them make no effort to disguise their surprise at a Black classmate. The world (or at least, those in power) has always let Assane down. Of course the idea of a gentleman thief would appeal to him, and of course he would have reason to turn to extralegal methods to actually get things done.
Netflix has slowly been growing its stable of foreign shows—the Spanish crime drama Money Heist is apparently its second most-watched show ever, the German neo-noir Babylon Berlin has become an international hit, and in recent weeks the new Korean show Sweet Home has made its own splash—but Lupin is perhaps the best of the latest crop. It’s a marvelous showcase for Sy (who was previously best known stateside for his less glamorous role in The Intouchables), and on top of that, it breathes new life into a literary character in such a way that makes him immediately accessible to those unfamiliar with him while also making the story’s twists and turns unpredictable for Lupin fanatics. The series also doesn’t waste a single minute, packing each and every moment full of suspense. Put all of that together, and it’s an early front-runner to steal a spot as one of the best shows of the year.