There are scores of film actors working today in what the U.S. smugly refers to as “Foreign Language Films” who are deserving of stardom on the international stage, and Omar Sy might be at the top of that list. The French actor began his career in 2000 with a string of appearances and voice roles in television and short films, and he gained notoriety in France in 2010 as half of a comedy sketch duo in a series called SAV des émissions. His true breakout was Intouchables (2011), a hilarious and poignant dramedy about an unlikely friendship between an ex-con and a quadriplegic millionaire. Sy is transcendent in this film, absolutely bursting with life and energy, and his efforts were rewarded when he became the first Black man to win a César Award. International fame, it seemed, should follow, and indeed over the next few years Sy made his English-language debuts in the X-Men, Jurassic and Transformers franchises.
None of those roles exactly called for an actor of Sy’s talents, though; I’m not even sure he had any lines as the mutant Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past. His appearances in these massively-recognizable franchises, frankly, are forgettable, which plays out as a near-impossibility after seeing how utterly unforgettable Sy is in the likes of Intouchables. This is not to say that becoming a household name in America is tantamount to having a successful acting career, nor that Sy should at all be faulted for appearing in these big-budget blockbusters. Predictably, though, Hollywood is a beneficiary of his Intouchables work in a way that excludes the actor entirely: the film was remade as The Upside in 2017, starring Kevin Hart in Sy’s role, a hollow retread of the original that went on to gross $122 million.
Sy’s latest role is the title character of Lupin, a modern-day update of the adventures of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin. Occupying a similar territory in the French cultural consciousness as Sherlock Holmes occupies in the UK, Lupin is a far cry from the cardboard cutouts offered to Sy by Hollywood of late. He’s vastly intelligent, devious, stylish and charming. The burglaries he enacts draw from this well of talents, meaning it’s often Lupin’s personality that makes him so effective at what he does. Lupin‘s modern update provides a further twist: Sy plays Assane Diop, a Parisian who idolizes the fictional Lupin to the point of essentially becoming him: “I am Lupin,” he declares emphatically at the end of the first episode.
As a vehicle for Sy, Lupin is an unabashed success. His character’s family plays a major role in the proceedings, both family past (his father, who was framed for a jewel heist decades ago) and present (he has a son with his ex-wife, both of whom are at risk due to Assane’s crimes). Much as Watson grounds Sherlock for us, this thread of family grounds the more fantastical elements of Assane’s life; the over-the-top heists are often paired with more believable real-world consequences, particularly in the season’s fourth and best episode. But primarily this gives Sy the chance to run the emotional gamut, and as with Intouchables, Lupin is magnetic whenever he’s on screen.
The show’s plotting is at times weaker than its lead performance, though, and the holes reveal themselves if you delve too critically into any of the various heists. A crucial element of the first episode’s heist relies on a trash can in a crime scene being overlooked, which in turn relies on a series of events that Assane could hardly have predicted. That said, this genre has often prioritized stylized fun over plot details. The casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven leans on a similar series of outlandish conveniences, but it’s still a blast to go along for the ride. Lupin, despite the occasional contrivance, skates by with a similar suaveness.
One has to ask if Lupin would be as strong without Sy in the lead. While he’s not quite carrying the show on his back — there are plenty of other interesting characters here, particularly a disgraced former journalist played by Anne Benoit — it’s certainly true that Sy’s captivating, easygoing charm is the real draw here. The recently-renewed show hints at a much more self-serious plotline for the second season, which one would hope doesn’t detract from the less-serious instances of classy thievery. In its best moments, Lupin‘s fast-paced heist sequences manage to suggest real stakes without sacrificing that carefree atmosphere.
Notably, the Netflix series became the first French series to hit the streamer’s Top Ten list in the U.S. That probably marks this as the strongest opportunity yet for Western audiences to be exposed to Sy, as those audiences would be forgiven for missing him off to the side in X-Men or Jurassic World or Transformers. Omar Sy is not an “off to the side” actor, and in Lupin he’s front and center where he belongs.