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"Lupin Columbus Files": Explores Familiar Territory

If you’ve only recently joined the Lupin the Third fan club you’ve been spoiled, because beginning with 1997’s thrilling Island of Assassins the annual Lupin TV specials have all been solidly entertaining. Although no exception to the rule, 1999’s The Columbus Files struggles to stand out.

Sansei, Lupin SanseiWith Excel Saga‘s Shinichi Watanabe directing, the film’s deftness with wacky comedy is no surprise. He definitely knows how to set up a gag, including a few bizarre ones that strain Lupin’s already tenuous relationship with reality. Fortunately there are just enough laughs to carry the film, because the script does it few favors. It’s a generic and repetitive heist caper for the first two acts, and then swerves incongruously into X-Men territory for the finale. The franchise’s trademark sense of mystery is mostly lacking, and though some interesting character issues are raised, they’re given too little attention to have much impact.

We join Lupin as he seems to be finally rounding third base with lovely rival Fujiko, only to have creepy mercenary Nazalloff kidnap her out from under his pelvis. She alone has learned the location of the legendary Columbus Egg, but in the resulting chaos somehow loses her memory. Lupin, and cohorts Jigen and Goemon, begin a lengthy tug of war with Nazalloff over Fujiko, with spirited assistance from lovely treasure hunter Rosaria and occasional interruptions from Inspector Zenigata’s police task force. Rosaria learns, to mixed emotions, that Nazalloff is working for a close acquaintance who has discovered a way to harness the egg’s mysterious properties to make a bid for world conquest.

A few questions are left unanswered, namely why Fujiko loses her memory in the first place. This happens off screen in a mysterious manner that leads one to suspect foul play, but the script never bothers to explain the pivotal plot point.

It's Loopan, DAMMIT!Lupin is as entertaining as ever, but frankly his obsession with the completely self-absorbed Fujiko is a little embarrassing this time around. There’s always been a playful give and take between the two, but here his apparent sincerity makes him look like a sap in the face of her materialistic cynicism. When she is uncharacteristically thrust into the innocent damsel in distress role, Lupin wonders if maybe her amnesia isn’t all bad.

Rosaria is one of those typically plucky Lupin heroines who tries to match him step for step. The interesting twist is that instead of being enamored with Lupin, she seems to be infatuated with Fujiko. Regrettably the other Lupin regulars play only small parts in this adventure, Zenigata making one of his most inconsequential appearances ever and Jigen and Goemon largely confined to chauffeur duty.

Instead the spotlight shines brightly on Nazalloff, who pretty much runs away with the show. Usually Lupin henchmen are sinister and deadly and little more, but this guy is like Lupin’s crazy, evil doppelganger. He wears a jacket just like Lupin’s, is an equal master of disguise, and similarly lusts after Fujiko. Arrogant but thin-skinned, he often punctuates his sentences with an unearthly hyena-like cackle that quickly gets under Lupin’s skin. Nazalloff’s name and big curly hair seem possibly inspired by David Hasselhoff, and he also bears a resemblance to Watanabe’s animated alter ego Nabeshin. The Lupin franchise rarely recycles characters, but one as entertaining as Nazalloff surely demands a repeat appearance.

Nazalloff sweet talks FujikoThe familiar Funimation dub cast is solid as usual, even for the difficult Nazalloff. However, although I readily concede Kanichi Kurita’s Lupin is a daunting act to follow, Sonny Strait’s flat delivery takes a lot of the fun out of the character. Also Meredith McCoy’s Fujiko continues to sound more like a librarian than a cunning temptress.

Columbus is light on memorable action set pieces besides the usual James Bond opening, which has Lupin and Fujiko fleeing on motorcycle as helicopter gunships rain missiles down on them. The film has plenty of strong gags though, one particularly surreal one turning up earlier in that beginning. Thinking she’s successfully drugged the impassioned Lupin, Fujiko turns to the mirror to gloat only to find her reflection is actually a disguised Lupin, who quickly sheds his wig and lingerie and resumes his advances.

For perhaps the first time the series breaks the fourth wall when Zenigata, cuffing Lupin on a pier, chortles that his supporting cast has left him behind. Then Jigen pulls up in a speedboat, remarks that Zenigata is part of the supporting cast, and whisks Lupin away to freedom. When Lupin and company subsequently pursue Nazalloff’s boat, Jigen sarcastically remarks that they should ask the engine if they’ll be able to catch their quarry. To his comrades great surprise Goemon earnestly asks the engine just that, and amazingly it shakes itself “no” before sputtering to a halt.

And they say samurai aren't romanticColumbus‘s animation is a little above average for the series, clearly smoother than Island but not as slick as some of the most recent specials like Episode Zero. Unlike most Lupin films, there aren’t any really memorable visuals. That is unless you count Fujiko in a state of considerable undress.

As usual the special features are very modest. A text history of Christopher Columbus’s career as an explorer provides some interesting background, but isn’t terribly relevant to the story. The text character profiles and photo album of random stills are unnecessary; although I must admit the latter is handy for reviewers. Finally there’s an episode of the CGI Mr. Stain on Junk Alley, also found on Galaxy Railways Volume 3. Still missing from these Funimation releases are production art galleries and commentary from the creators. Even text interviews would be welcome.

The Columbus Files packs plenty of entertainment value for Lupin fans, but squanders too much of its premise to be essential. I’d like to see Watanabe take a second swing at the franchise with a tighter script. And I have two words for Funimation’s marketing department: Nazalloff ringtones. Think about it.

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