Idris Elba’s John Luther returns like he never left in giant-sized TV movie-episode

Review by C.J. Bunce

Idris Elba’s John Luther was a singular anti-hero in five seasons of the BBC’s Luther, a police procedural/crime drama that aired from 2010-2019, known for its over-the-top violence and preposterous crime situations.  Thankfully the expressive, rising star actress Ruth Wilson was there as a villain mastermind to provide some much-needed bits of humor along the way.  The new Netflix movie sequel from the BBC, Luther: The Fallen Sun, is faithfully just as extremely violent and preposterous as the series–in fact it’s probably the best episode of the series that doesn’t co-star Ruth Wilson.  The difference is this story makes London’s police and prison system look completely inept, and its villain is a Lex Luthor brand of sadistic terrorist played by Andy Serkis, who plays the role just like his one-note Marvel Cinematic Universe villain Ulysses Klaue.  Yes, Idris Elba brings back that looming force, his self-described “black Superman” from Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw, or that superhuman power from Star Trek Beyond, and he gets even closer to giving the world what everyone whose last name isn’t Broccoli would love to see: Elba as the first black man to play 007.  If you liked the series, you’ll like this TV movie, because it is exactly for anyone wishing for another episode of the show only the TV gods bestowed you with a double instead.

Serkis is at first an unnamed puppetmaster, upping the crime ante in ways no James Bond movie has ever dared, with a manipulator of seemingly thousands of random citizens, whose minor or major embarrassments are enough to get them to participate in the steps of the planning and execution of the murders of an enormous number of other people, along with the suicides of others who can’t deal with their own embarrassments, which could range from online viewing history to participation in sex clubs, embezzlement, or who knows what else.  This villain merges A.I., deep fake tech, and blackmail with his unexplained access to unlimited funds–there’s much not explained throughout the story.  Serkis at first seems like Kenneth Branagh’s villain in the Jack Ryan movie, but he’s far worse, far more loathesome in every way, beginning with a poorly chosen wig and clothes that would compete with any Columbo-era villain, before you get to the heinous nature of his crimes.

Elba’s Luther was already heading to prison for his own antics in the five seasons of the TV series.  This show begins beautifully, seamlessly, right where the series left off, with Luther analyzing a new crime scene with his boss, Chief Martin Schenk, played again by the perfectly cast Dermot Crowley.  Crowley’s presence is vital to this TV movie capturing the promise of any nostalgia for the series, since neither Paul McGann nor Warren Brown nor Indira Varma’s characters could return (none survived), and–again–Wilson doesn’t even offer a cameo appearance.  Harriet and Mr. Selfridge actress Cynthia Erivo is the film’s co-star, playing Schenk’s replacement on the force.

Serkis’s villain is so industrious and wealthy that it takes no time to get Luther thrown in jail, where he is nonsensically merged into the general population, only one of the real-world errors and elements you’d only find in a movie.  Fortunately Luther utilizes an old resource (Traces’ brooding and cool Vincent Regan) and sympathetic guards to get sprung in the film’s first thirty minutes.  The in and out is a waste of time, but the next ninety minutes make up for it in ways only a Luther story could.  As with the TV series, there’s always another bent cop on the squad, and sadly that’s the angle the script relies on again here.

Directed by Jamie Payne, who directed episodes of Luther the series, as well as Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who, The Bletchley Circle, and The Hour, and written by series creator Neil Cross, the crimes are a reminder the series should have been called “crime horror.”  People are hanged in groups, drowned in frozen lakes, and forced to jump to their deaths en masse in Piccadilly Circus, making Serkis’s villain truly one of the all-time worst of the worst in the genre.  But the last act has its interesting elements.  Payne and Cross are not going to wait for Elba to get the call to play the actual James Bond.  Instead they twist John Luther into an international plot–take him to a snow-frozen mansion in Norway, where he seems to begin his segue into a series of movies where he may just work for MI-6.  Beyond that there’s no cinematography or cinematic vibe to make this movie feel like anything other than an expanded TV episode.

Elba delivers exactly what the fans want.  His character has not changed a speck.  He’s true to his badge, whether he still wears it or not, and he’ll break any and every law necessary to see that the bad guys get the scales of justice crushed into their skulls.  Because that’s the way his character was written from the first season.

What’s missing here in this darkly dark story is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel–those touches of levity Wilson brought with her unstable manipulator of Luther and everyone else.  Is there enough for John Luther to carry a movie series?  Sure.  But it will depend on whether BBC TV series audiences in England and across the pond find this movie on Netflix and provide enough viewers to justify it.  What does that title mean?  What’s “The Fallen Sun”?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Every decision of the movie is a re-hash of something we’ve all seen in other crime shows.  It’s easy to spot this same plot on Law & Order: SVU and The Closer, for starters.  Unfortunately we don’t exactly get to see the tropes as John Luther would address them, because the script mostly takes him along for the ride.  There’s no mystery here, just a carnival show where the audience watches how bad it’s all going to get this time before Luther gets the bad guy.

For Luther fans, this is probably enough.  Elba delivers more of everything from the series.  He’s still the same cool action hero.  He’s that classic noir detective that gets beaten up and battered around (and knifed twice, stored in a trunk, half-drowned in a frozen lake, etc.) and gives it out when the writers let him (his fight scenes are a high point of the show).  But maybe the next movie, if there is one, will try something with some surprises.  That might be more fun.

Catch the Luther TV movie Luther: The Fallen Sun, streaming now only on Netflix.


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