The satisfied smile of Assane Diop as he walks away from people he’s just foiled is an incandescent marvel. To say that “Lupin” succeeds because of the man behind that smile, Omar Sy, is a vast understatement. Take him out of this show — whether in the first five episodes that became an early-2021, word-of-mouth international hit or in the second five that make up what Netflix calls “Part 2” — and it’s hard to imagine any other part of it equipped to handle what the confidence in that title performance brings.
It’s odd, then, that “Lupin” Part 2 tries its hardest to sideline so much of that Sy playfulness that made up the bulk of what got people hooked back in January. Instead, the show doubles down on its conspiracy side, threads through even more of its time-hopping setups, and makes its way to a finale that seems as stuck in the middle as the episodes that come right before it.
Judging by the simple premise that guides them, these episodes definitely don’t have to be as sweeping and frenetic as they often are. Assane is still focused on his overarching goal: seeing that those responsible for framing his father decades ago are brought to the kind of justice only he can dispense. That goal is both complicated and renewed by the events right before Part 2 begins. After a reconciliatory bus ride promises some happier news on the horizon, Assane’s son Raoul (Etan Simon) is kidnapped. Hubert Pelligrini (Hervé Pierre), the man responsible for bringing pain into Assane’s childhood, seems bent on doing it again to him as an adult.
“Lupin” wants to absorb everything that comes along with a crime drama loaded with real, serious consequences, where parents scream in sorrow at their children being killed right in front of them. It also wants to be an effortless charm vehicle, with Sy dancing to the Four Tops while whipping up a tasty meal. It greatly succeeds at the latter and seems to always strain under the weight of the former.
Part of that difficulty comes from the fact that Assane doesn’t really have any worthy adversaries. Pierre doesn’t play him as an over-the-top mustache twirling villain, but Pelligrini has plenty of the other trappings: henchmen to dispatch, grand money-stealing schemes held up by sham foundations, and (of course) priceless jewelry. “Lupin” is content to set him up as Assane’s opposite in almost every way except for the righteousness of their thievery. It wants life-and-death stakes without complication, and those shortcuts are increasingly glaring as the season goes on.
The various law enforcement entities on their tail have even less about them to latch onto. The possible exception is Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab), whose unlikely team-up with Assane in the early going of Part 2 gives the audience a chance to sit with the two as they find some emotional common ground. But the other officers tracking down Assane through his various disguises rarely get a moment to do anything other than connect dots in the case. Even then, it’s rarely more compelling than it was watching Guedira unscramble a couple simple anagrams in the show’s opening episodes.
On the dot-connecting front, those officers are in good company, because there’s barely a part of “Lupin” that isn’t devoted to tracing out thematic and story parallels as clear as possible. That rears up most often in the show’s frequent 25-year flashbacks to Assane as a youngster. When those glimpses into 1995 are closer to the one that sees young Assane get his confidence in a riverside shell game, it works. Tracking the lifelong evolution of the trio of Assane, his ex Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), and his best friend Ben (Antoine Gouy) works to a point, too. As neat and tidy as most others are in mapping onto Assane’s ongoing attempts in the present, they’re frequently locked into repeating what we’ve already been seeing.
Those flashbacks aren’t the only way that “Lupin” unnecessarily messes with its own timeline. Too often, for the sake of a shocking, episode-capping twist, the show takes the audience through the tried-and-true heist story trick of showing you what you’ve just seen, but with a slightly different perspective. Sometimes, the tiny breadcrumbs pointing a way to an explanation in hindsight make for an entertaining bit of misdirection. But after a half-dozen times, it’s a fakeout that loses a lot of its luster. (There’s one particular late-season reveal that would be a whole lot more fun if that technique hadn’t already been dulled.)
It makes sense that “Lupin” keeps invoking its literary inspiration. Like any modern franchise pillar, there’s never really any doubt that he won’t ultimately end up with the upper hand. Any threat of danger remains just out of reach, any setback eventually righted. It’s part of the show’s appeal (as presumably is Assane’s prodigious hand-to-hand combat skills), but it’s also what makes the more serious dramatic hairpin turns of Part 2 ring a little false. “Lupin” isn’t a show with enough commitment to make Assane’s exploits work on a level beyond mischief. When things veer toward potential legitimate bloodshed, the show feels out of its depth.
It’s a shame, because “Lupin” works at its most whimsical. Assane as a character is most entertaining in small-scale logistical trickery. You don’t need a car chase with a driver almost pulverized by an oncoming train when you have someone who revels in the art of deceiving police officers and bilking old racists out of their ill-gotten jewels. Part 2 also gets bogged down with plenty of unnecessary tech. Swiping an officer’s badge in one motion and then using it to gain entry to a crime scene is a lot more satisfying than having to pretend there’s a smartphone app that can mimic keycard access.
But if a show’s protagonist has to be burdened with all these unnecessary complications, few are better equipped to make them work than Sy. It’s a performance marked by so much vicarious joy that it’s almost too hard to believe Assane in the moments when he says he’s thinking about giving up what he does best. If Part 3 is indeed coming, “Lupin” would do well to resist the temptation to go any bigger than it already has. A gentleman burglar and his smirk is plenty enough.
“Lupin” Part 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.