“Luther: The Fallen Sun” starts by punishing its protagonist — scruffy, cross-the-line Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) — for all his past sins after the franchise’s latest villain, played by Andy Serkis, releases details of Luther’s rule-bending tactics to the media. On the phone with some kind of Estonian henchman, Serkis’ Robey implies that it will be tricky to dig up the dirt on Luther because “he doesn’t have much of an online presence,” but the next thing we know, Luther’s being tossed into a high-security prison. Guess they got their hands on the past five seasons of the BBC Television series.
Or maybe the last episode was enough — although we won’t retroactively give it away here, for those who haven’t dedicated the past dozen years to following Luther’s exploits. Suffice to say, this was the role that got people speculating that Elba might make a suitable replacement when Daniel Craig decided to retire his license to kill. Like Craig’s 21st-century 007, Luther was a darker, more tortured kind of action hero, torn between a constipated psychology and his locomotive drive to capture and punish wrongdoers.
Directed by Jamie Payne (who helmed most of Season 5), this stand-alone feature picks up where the series left off (though the circumstances of Luther’s arrest are different), and doesn’t require audiences to have seen any of what came before. Netflix will even release “The Fallen Sun” first in theaters on Feb. 24, which is at once optimistic and bizarre, given how little cinemas play into the streamer’s strategy. Chances are, most will wait till it’s available via their subscriptions on March 10 — and even then, the movie is more for Luther completists than the merely curious.
The budget seems extravagant, allowing for elaborate helicopter/drone shots (including one of Luther standing heroically atop a London skyscraper, his wool coat flapping like a Bat-cape in the wind) and a finale shot all the way in Iceland (doubling for Norway), where Robey maintains a base befitting a Bond villain. The film opens with the miscast killer (at this point just a menacing voice) blackmailing a young janitor into meeting him. Then the scene takes a strange turn; it’s never clear why Robey doesn’t simply kidnap him, rather than overcomplicating the abduction and leaving another corpse behind. But it all boils down to a rather corny serial killer movie featuring Luther as the cop on his trail, himself pursued by the bright, by-the-book replacement DCI Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo). For some reason, it all reminded me of “The Snowman.” And you never want to be reminded of “The Snowman.”
Maybe what makes “The Fallen Sun” so hard to take seriously is the odd choice of Serkis to play some kind of insidious cyber mastermind. The typically versatile actor (best known for his performance-capture roles as Gollum and King Kong) is all smiles beneath an elaborately blow-dried wig, worn the way your Aunt Mildred styled her hair back in the ’80s. He’s a ridiculous character, based on no one who ever lived, capable of hacking into laptop cameras or eavesdropping via unsuspecting people’s Alexa devices and baby monitors (that much seems plausible-ish).
Robey may or may not be assisted by a small army of surveillance snoops in cataloging random people’s every sin: drugs, gambling, pornography, fraud (this much is harder to tell, as it’s suggested in a nonsensical montage wherein shady figures identify random tech users as “possible targets”). The creep then uses these peccadilloes to blackmail ostensibly good folks into all sorts of weird behavior — like convincing a guilty-conscience police officer to undermine the investigation, and when the cops get close, even to commit murder on his behalf.
Now here’s the even weirder thing: Luther has some kind of uncanny intuition about criminals that allows him to figure out all of this without so much as a single old-fashioned clue. At a time when “people live their secret lives out on the internet,” as the Luddite detective puts it, Luther thinks that Robey has “probably figured out that in the right circumstances … the fear of being called out … is way more powerful than the fear of death.” It’s a compelling idea, where one man has access to everyone’s deepest shame, which he can then leverage to make people do what he wants. But just how bad must their secrets be to commit mass suicide, on camera, as a group of them do in the film’s most unsettling scene?
Neil Cross, who created the series and wrote the script, has too many ideas up his sleeve, to the point that it becomes confusing how Robey chooses his victims versus the folks he manipulates to do his bidding. Robey’s master plan involves launching a livestreaming “red room” (a site on the Dark Web where users watch torture and murder) for like-minded sickos, but why is he doing it? For money, or to entrap all the creeps who’d dare to tune in? Does it matter? The whole thing is just a pretense to pair Elba with Erivo, first as cat and mouse and later as fellow felines, stalking their true quarry all the way to Norway.
As the script gets stupider, Robey keeps misjudging the detectives: After getting Luther arrested, Robey starts taunting him in prison via a radio broadcast. Later, after kidnapping Raine’s teenage daughter — evidently with the intent of manipulating the woman leading the investigation — he’s surprised when Raine shows up to rescue the girl. Paine and his crew do muster some decent action, set in places you’d hardly expect (like crowded Piccadilly Circus), but scenery only goes so far to disguise the utter preposterousness of Cross’ script.
In the end, the only thing more unnecessary than bringing Luther back after he’d already been cuffed and karma’d in 2019 is setting him up for some kind of promotion, as the last scene implies. Who knows, maybe they’ll make it worth Elba’s while for passing on Bond in some future installment. But “The Fallen Sun” is a long way from being the better offer.