Despite having Idris Elba and some other dependable pieces, this two-hour continuation of the BBC drama ends up out of its depth.
Misery is part of the “Luther” equation. It’s visited on suspects and victims and detectives and, to some extent, the audience watching it. Over five seasons, it’s been a cornerstone of the BBC crime drama, a neverending series of rock-bottoms (emotionally, not necessarily in quality).
That overpowering darkness has been a major “Luther” throughline, coupled with the shuffling in and out of the coworkers and compatriots of DCI John Luther (Idris Elba). He’s had partners — in most senses of the word — die in front of him. He’s uncovered grisly killings and mutilated bodies. Those five seasons have been a steady dose of one-upping, to see how much one man can survive.
So after almost a decade of rumblings, the long-discussed “Luther” movie has arrived. “Luther: The Fallen Sun” is more adaptation than extension, changing the environment and Luther’s toolset in a way that makes it accessible for viewers who haven’t already spent 20 hours tracking his on-screen saga. Like Luther’s latest nemesis, “Luther: The Fallen Sun” goes big, and not always in ways that work to its benefit.
After a quick prelude, the movie finds Luther behind bars. He’s locked away, but not for reasons that the end of the last TV season might have implied. (Aside from a quick shot of the Season 5 killer in one news report, “The Fallen Sun” is yada-yadaing a lot of what that last finale might have set in motion.) From jail, where he’s also a target of men in nearby cells, Luther gets a taunting message from David Robey (Andy Serkis), England’s latest criminal mastermind and a man personally targeting the former detective. Believing himself to be the only person capable of stopping Robey before he kills again, Luther sets in motion a plan to spring himself free and track down this killer in person.
With his list of living former associates left awfully thin after the events of Season 5, the other main holdover from the show is former boss Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley). Soon, he and Luther’s de facto replacement Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo) are fighting a two-pronged battle: find out who’s leaving elaborate displays of death all over London and keep Luther from interfering.
It helps that Erivo and Crowley provide steady hands because their characters certainly have their hands full on both accounts. Whether it’s a go-for-broke strategy to make Luther feel more like a big-screen superhero or a symptom of a film industry that can’t support substantially-budgeted stories unless the entire world is in danger, “Luther: The Fallen Sun” isn’t content with mere gestures toward the operatic.
Luther doesn’t have to take on a few men while trying to bust out of prison — it has to be four dozen. It’s not enough that Robey is driving people to their death — it has to be a public spectacle. Where the show used to thrive on the idea of an ugliness lurking in the open corners of daily life, this movie works triply hard to weave together anxieties about privacy and the surveillance state, putting it all toward something more showy than shocking.
Original series writer Neil Cross, who’s been open about his penchant for putting his characters through the most exquisite torture imaginable, takes on the same duties here. “Luther: The Fallen Sun” is also a re-teaming with Jamie Payne, who helped deliver a Season 5 that brought the show back to its roots before ending in a parade of explosive violence. Both Cross and Payne are successful in dealing with the claustrophobic side of “Luther,” showing a man who is running out of options and room to run. Once “Luther: The Fallen Sun” brings its hero out into the open, the movie becomes a chaotic mess painted on too big a canvas.
Serkis is at least trying to inject some theatrical fun into all of this, clad in a truly garish hairpiece while Robey harbors widespread dreams of cooking up a global blackmail network. For all the questions Elba’s had to answer over the years about the one franchise role he never got, this movie is enough to make you wonder if Serkis has always harbored dreams of being a Bond villain.
Yet, the “Luther” baddies have historically been the one place that this fictional world has made its misery make sense. Some of them had flair, but there was deep pain to go along with it. Even someone with the pluck and sassiness of Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan (a character not even whispered about here) ultimately chose a vindictive over a clean getaway. It’s a paradox that in a film/TV series desperately lacking in fun, Robey is somehow having too much of it.
It’s that mismatched spirit that’s symptomatic of “Luther: The Fallen Sun” as whole. It’s not that Serkis or Erivo or Elba is necessarily failing. It’s that they all seem to be plucked from different worlds and smushed together out of necessity, something that comes across most in an overstuffed climactic showdown filled with ideas that “Luther” has done more practically and effectively before. Watching “Luther: The Fallen Sun” feels like watching a lesser version of “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” as if this was a repurposed Cross script retrofitted to be the “Luther” movie everyone’s been asking for: Start with a more general premise of a cat-and-mouse trackdown of a technovillain, but add some creepy masks, a whiff of sexual frustration, and Luther himself. By the time some overly ambitious special effects work gets added to the soup, the pot starts overflowing.
It’s extra frustrating when so many of the quieter moments have some of that classic “Luther” touch. There’s a small bit of grace in a sequence where Luther comforts someone who thinks they’re about to die. There’s a tiny thrill in seeing Luther outsmart someone who’s told him too much but doesn’t realize it yet. There’s ruthlessness and emptiness on screen for a good portion of this movie’s 129 minutes, but there are also glimpses of a beating heart underneath. Holding onto a little humanity in the face of cruelty led to the show’s best moments. There’s just not enough in “Luther: The Fallen Sun” that’s worth fighting for.
“Luther: The Fallen Sun” is now playing in select theaters. The film will start streaming on Netflix on Friday, March 10.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.