Warning: Spoilers ahead. The movie contains graphic nudity, disturbing/violent content, and language.
I approached Luther: The Fallen Sun (2023) not as a sequel to a BBC show that I haven’t seen, but as Idris Elba’s Netflix vehicle, and as such, it left me utterly underwhelmed.
Full disclosure: I am an Idris Elba fan. He does the very British “less is more” acting method to perfection: in Prometheus (2012), his character has only a few lines and still manages to outshine the rest of the all-star ensemble. Elba is at his maximum star wattage when he exudes class (Obsessed, 2009) or kinetic energy (Beasts of No Nation, 2015). Alas, he is none of that in Luther: The Fallen Sun. Instead, we get a morose, mumbling Elba. As if, after playing the London police inspector for five seasons (2010-2019) on British television, he decided to phone this one in.
Netflix’s John Luther is a push-over. We watch him being bossed around by a mother of a victim, inmates in jail, colleagues in the police, and David Robey (Andy Serkis), a hyperactive serial killer who desperately tries to elevate death-porn Zoom sessions into a cult. In their final confrontation, in a car sinking to the bottom of a frozen lake, Luther is more interested in wrestling away the remote control from Robey than finishing him off.
Viewers flocked to Netflix to see Elba kick ass in style, like the first black James Bond would. The 65 million hours of the movie viewed worldwide put the show at #1 on the streamer’s Top 10 (“Variety”). But what slow-footed, slow-witted Luther really achieved, is to effectively bury the dream of Elba ever donning the famous tux and introducing himself to a Belarussian honeytrap as “Bond, James Bond.”
The plot is confusing, and cliches keep piling up, eventually reaching the level of absurdity unexpected from an Idris-Elba-caliber production. Luther gets thrown into a prison that is populated almost exclusively by white bigots who hate Luther’s guts. Because he is a cop. They knock him unconscious in a shower. Later, during a prison revolt, they are hell-bent on breaking into Luther’s cell and killing him. Why didn’t they do it in the shower, or when they saw him in the canteen and prison yard?!
Set design and editing don’t help. After the gratuitous nudity/jail shower scene, John Luther throws on an inconspicuous hoodie and goes to some urban dump to meet two pals under the rain. He asks them to break him out of jail. By the looks of it, he is already out, but according to Luther, he is still inside. At this point, I am too busy trying to decipher the motivations behind this production to care about Luther’s whereabouts.
Neil Cross, the show’s creator, doesn’t seem to know what to make out of the Netflix sequel: a pulp-noir comedy in the vein of Dick Tracy, or a crime thriller as stated. Budget doesn’t seem to be the problem: Luther: The Fallen Sun is a spectacular and technically sound show. It ticks all representation boxes, except for LGBTQ+: The black male and female leads (Elba and Cynthia Erivo), the villain and his skinhead henchman speaking an Eastern European language, lily-white bullies and perverts, and a female police employee in a wheelchair. What it lacks, though, is a solid script that would make us root for the good guys.
Cynthia Erivo’s character Odette Raine, the new head of Serious and Serial Crime Division, is severely underwritten. She cares more about not being upstaged by Luther than solving the murder case. When her own daughter is kidnapped, she loses the plot: Raine harangues Luther into her car trunk, stubs him at the villain’s request, and wastes critical time getting to Norway in her busted-up, right-handed car instead of hopping on a plane. The show invents a direct passenger ferry from Dover, UK, to Norway. In reality, Raine would still be driving across continental Europe, while her daughter is skinned alive on camera. You know that suspension of disbelief is out the window when you start Google-mapping in the middle of a movie.
By undermining the appeal and credibility of black characters, the show compromises the very idea of diversity and representation it sets to promote.
Idris Elba deserves a better-quality material. Despite being a global star and A-lister, he is a working actor who does on average 6 movies a year. He might have signed on to the Netflix deal set forth by the trusted Neil Cross, with his eyes closed. Many a star headlines a subpar movie just to cash in. But here is why Idris Elba shouldn’t be one of them:
He belongs to an exclusive club of the 20 most bankable actors on Earth. The only other black actor on it, is Samuel L. Jackson. It is time Idris Elba starts choosing movies that befit his black superstar status. It is his responsibility to the audience that supports him. He must be a model to aspiring black actors, by demanding quality scripts and choosing productions that advocate for diversity and inclusion in a sensible way.