Midway through this first feature-length outing for legendary London copper John Luther (Idris Elba), our burly, world-weary antihero wanders up to a bar for a drink. Looking shaken and stirred by his pursuit of a fiendishly clever and manipulative serial killer, he invites the barman to choose his beverage for him, only to roundly reject the suggestion of a martini and opt for plain old water instead.
Is this, after years of talk, Elba telling viewers that he will most certainly not be replacing Daniel Craig as James Bond? If so, it’s clear that he has an alternative career path mapped out, because Luther: The Fallen Sun is an attempt not just to upgrade the character from the BBC to the silver screen in a Netflix production of some size and scope, but to launch a franchise. "Bond, James Bond," will no doubt be how Craig’s successor introduces himself on his first globetrotting adventure. Luther, whom Elba has stated could solve cases in such far-flung places as Colombia and Berlin, will likely settle for a more casual, "Wotcha."
Written, as ever, by Neil Cross, and directed by Jamie Payne, who helmed all four episodes of Series 5, Luther: The Fallen Sun begins where that season left off in 2019, with DCI Luther sent to the clink. Rather like ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and numerous other maverick law enforcers, Luther has always cut corners, broken rules and roughed-up low lifes to get what he wants – "This man is nitroglycerin!" gasped one character in 2010’s debut season – and now his own crimes have caught up with him.
The timing’s terrible: while Luther expends all of his energies on not getting shanked by one of the many criminals he’s sent down and is now sharing real estate with, cyber psychopath David Robey (a creepy Andy Serkis) is gleaning data of the most personal kind to shame people to their deaths.
Tech billionaire Robey, like Se7en’s John Doe, is a brilliant sicko with a ghastly master plan, always one step ahead of the police as he sniffs out sinners and then acts as judge, jury and executioner. Detective Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo), heading up the team of hunters, plays by the book and can’t get close. So it’s down to Luther to break out of prison and then do whatever it takes once he gets back to pounding London’s mean streets, where he skulks in the shadows to avoid further capture.
The prison break is thrilling, offering long takes of Luther fighting his way down corridors like he’s stumbled out of Oldboy without a hammer. It’s heavily choreographed to feel raw-edged and real. Similarly, the London that Luther escapes into is, at street level, shabby and mundane, while helicopter and drone shots pull back to reveal a gleaming night-time cityscape that belongs to the movies. There’s even a shot of Luther standing at the edge of a high-rise rooftop surveying the glittering skyscrapers all about, like a ramshackle Batman whose cape is a grey woollen coat.
It’s to Cross and Payne’s credit that, throughout, they walk the line between the low-key Luther we know and the event-movie Luther it might become. The characters that fans so love are in place, led by the same scuffed, big-hearted, brutal antihero that is, along with The Wire’s Stringer Bell, Elba’s best role, and they occupy a familiar world.
But now there are also new characters – Erivo’s Raine is commanding – and a scale that grows and grows as the movie unfurls. The foe is that bit more disturbing (and we don’t just mean Serkis’ ghastly hairdo), and the set-pieces deliver. Pick of the bunch? A centrepiece that takes place in Piccadilly Circus, which is this movie’s equivalent to Se7en’s head-in-a-box showstopper, only more chaotic and realised on an operatic scale, as the good guys realise that they’re not in control like they thought, but are, in fact, royally screwed.
OK, so the plugged-into-our-times theme of the privileged few hypocritically lording it up over us mere plebs has powered an awful lot of movies in the last few years. But here it’s explored from an unusual angle, as cutting-edge surveillance melds with biblical morals: let he who is without sin webcast the first stone. True, events ultimately build up to a final act that’s not as original as it might have been, somehow managing to evoke both Bond flicks and the Hostel films while straying a little too far from what Elba called "Luther-land" into movie-land.
But that’s surely inevitable when the ultimate goal is to grant Luther a licence to thrill on a global scale. This is a confident first step. We can only hope that Elba realises his dream and scores those plane tickets to Colombia.
Luther: The Fallen Sun is out in cinemas now and on Netflix on March 10. For what else to stream, check out our guide to the best Netflix movies available now.