The 2017 Spanish Netflix series “Money Heist” (La Casa de Papel) became such a global obsession over the course of its five seasons that it not only spawned a Korean spinoff, “Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area,” but two documentaries.
First there was “Money Heist: The Phenomenon,” a look at the show’s worldwide popularity, and then came “Money Heist: From Tokyo to Berlin,” in which the creators and actors talked about the making of the series. Until “Squid Game” came along, “Money Heist” was Netflix’s most-watched non-English-language drama, reaching some 180 million households worldwide, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
So you knew it wouldn’t be long before there would be more stories spinning out of the “Money Heist” universe. After all, last year Netflix extended its deal with creator Alex Pina, with talk of a new show about Spanish multimillionaires living in splendor in luxurious underground bunkers during the COVID crisis while those above ground suffered and died.
But, for now, there’s “Berlin,” the latest link in the “Money Heist” chain and a highly watchable eight-episode celebration of danger and derring-do that stylishly salutes heist-movie tropes. While it lacks its predecessor’s sense of surprise — knowing that this is a prequel where certain characters have to survive to pull off the events in “Money Heist” saps some of the suspense — it nevertheless delivers what “Money Heist” fans want: beautiful (if rough-hewn and emotionally damaged) people in beautiful places trying to pull off an impossibly complex and complicated crime worthy of Wile E. Coyote’s efforts to trap the Road Runner.
For those who have remained oblivious to “Money Heist,” here’s a little background. The spinoff is called “Berlin” not because it is set in or has any connection to the German city but because it’s the nickname of the charming and erudite but crafty and cold-blooded Andres de Fonollosa (Pedro Alonso), an often brilliant criminal tactician who feeds off danger like a parasite on skin. In the original series, the gang planning to break into the Royal Mint of Spain all had monikers of great cities: Rio, Tokio (Tokyo), Helsinki, Nairobi, Moscú (Moscow), Bogota, Palermo and, of course, Berlin.
Taking place sometime before the events of the Madrid-set first “Money Heist,” “Berlin” unspools in Paris where Andres, uh, Berlin is planning to pull off a 44 million euro plundering of jewels from a swanky auction house. Of course, he has recruited a group of young guns to help him: Keila (Michelle Jenner), a pathologically shy computer genius; Roi (Julio Peña), a troubled man who can break into anything; Bruce (Joel Sanchez), a tattooed love boy and jack-of-all-trades when it comes to weaponry; and Cameron, a vivacious “thief-in-training” whose particular skills are not at first evident. Helping Berlin oversee this often raucous cast of characters is the older Damian (Tristán Ulloa), one of Berlin’s longtime running buddies who’s a university professor by day, criminal genius by night.
Like Andres himself, each is broken inside, and their cool exteriors are just spackle over years of emotional trauma. So, of course, Berlin can’t resist possibly ruining everything by falling hopelessly in love with Camille (Samantha Siqueiros), the wife of the head of the auction house.
Comparisons are going to be made between “Berlin” and “Money Heist” and, in some ways, this new version comes up short. Whereas the meticulous mastermind of “Money Heist,” known as The Professor, was sympathetic in terms of why he was doing his crime, the often cruel and capricious Andres — a man who often seems to put his own voracious appetites first — is far less so.
The tense, cat-and-mouse game with the police that made “Money Heist” so gripping from the first episode doesn’t really come into play here until later episodes. Plus, the end goal is neither as galvanizing nor as world-changing as what the original group was trying to accomplish. The entire mission is more run of the heist-movie mill.
Certainly, the new crew doesn’t quite have the same chemistry that proved so enjoyably combustible the first time around. And, at least at first, Keila’s nerdy shyness is meant to offer some comic relief, but it sometimes comes off as grating.
But the addictive “Berlin” certainly has its many pleasures, such as mounting, if increasingly implausible, plot twists (including surprises that will delight fans of the original show), slick editing, sleekly executed action scenes, gorgeous French landscapes and the sweet, sweet classic French pop-music needle drops that range from Etienne Daho to Charles Aznavour. After all, who can resist the slyly erotic charms of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s sultry “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus”?
So, while “Berlin” might not be as much of a knockout as the first season of its predecessor, it still manages to pack a punch. As Berlin, while quaffing an expensive champagne might say, “Vive la France!”