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Idris Elba’s familiar antihero saves flawed ‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’

Name a movie that became a television show. That’s easy, right? Robert Altman’s 1970 dark war comedy “M*A*S*H” is at the top of the list, having spawned a comedy-drama television series that ran for 11 seasons from 1972 to 1983.

Before that, the 1949 war film “12 O’Clock High,” directed by Henry King and starring Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe, was adapted for the small screen in 1964 and ran for three seasons on ABC. There are many more examples, such as “Peyton Place,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Bad News Bears,” “House Calls,” “Starman,” “9 to 5” — and the list goes on.

Now, name a television show that has made the jump to the big screen. Also easy? What if you had to limit your response to the ones that retained the original television cast in the feature film? 

Well, there’s “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which both successfully moved from TV to movie theater. The 1966 campy live-action television series based on the DC Comics’ character Batman spawned one feature film, released in theaters in 1966 between the show’s first and second season. The fan favorite Fox series, “Firefly,” eventually made it to film as “Serenity.” Don Adams reprised his “Get Smart” role as Maxwell Smart in the 1980 film “The Nude Bomb.” Miley Cyrus did the same for her Hannah Montana character in the 2009 film “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” 

The earliest example of this is probably the Western drama television series “The Lone Ranger,” starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, which ran on ABC from 1949 to 1957. Moore and Silverheels starred in two feature films based on the show: “The Lone Ranger” in 1956 and “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” in 1958.

The British psychological crime thriller television series “Luther” has now transitioned to the big screen with the “Luther: The Fallen Sun.” The crime thriller was released in select theaters on Feb. 24 before its March 10 debut on Netflix.

The film is a continuation of the program, but it provides enough of a synopsis so that viewers who haven’t watched all five series — a total of 20 episodes — aren’t left completely in the dark. It’s an abstract abridgement of all the events that have transpired, though, so it provides only a thumbnail sketch of the protagonist.

That protagonist is brilliant but disgraced detective John Luther (Idris Elba). He is an antihero analogous to Harold “Dirty Harry” Francis Callahan, though with a very different mindset. His methods for solving cases are simultaneously ingenious and unorthodox. When the safety of the public is in jeopardy, Luther ignores police protocol, violently intimidating suspects and witnesses and flouting the law to obtain information or evidence. Unlike Callahan, he dislikes relying on firearms and he goes out of his way to not kill suspects.

Very early in the film, a treasure trove of unspecified unlawful acts from Luther’s past cases lead to his arrest and imprisonment in a scheme concocted by the film’s antagonist, serial killer David Robey (Andy Serkis). Robey orchestrates the release of the evidence to get Luther out of the way so he can proceed with his nefarious endeavor: creating a dark web site where subscribers pay to watch livestream broadcasts in which Robey tortures and kills his victims. Robey acquires victims through a combination of cyberstalking and blackmail.

With inside help, Luther manages to break out of prison — presumably because he has no faith in DCI Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo) who oversees the Serious and Serial Crime working the case. On the run, Luther contacts retired Detective Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley), his old boss, and asks for his help to track down Robey. 

“Luther: The Fallen Sun” is directed by Jamie Payne and written by series creator Neil Cross. The story feels more rushed than urgent. Elba’s Luther comes across as a diluted facsimile of the character fans of the series have watched evolve since the show debuted in 2010. It’s as though Cross tried to shoehorn a four-episode arc into one 129-minute film. There’s no time to dwell upon Luther’s obsessive nature. There’s no time to see how he is traumatized by the horrors he has witnessed and to empathize with him for the sacrifices he makes to do his job. Elba’s performance is still compelling, but the script compels him to abbreviate those haunting gazes and world-weary expressions.

Like Brad Dourif before him, Serkis has a knack for playing criminally insane characters. When the role calls for it, he can successfully convey a menacing creepiness that oozes through the screen. In portraying Robey, Serkis delivers a larger-than-life adversary for Luther. In the role, Serkis effectively communicates Robey’s intellect as well as his depravity. 

Like many action thrillers, “Luther: The Fallen Sun” asks the audience to ignore some obvious flaws. Luther always manages to escape capture despite suffering significant wounds. Events unfold in way that suggests everyone is always exactly where they need to be to push the plot forward. And can anyone explain to me why there were scuba divers on that helicopter? 

“‘Luther: The Fallen Sun’ has allowed me and the whole team to explore a scope and scale that enables the story to fill every single corner of the frame and push it, whilst also making sure that we didn't lose the DNA of what made the TV series successful,” Payne said in the film’s production notes. “There are a number of pure ‘Luther’ set pieces in this film that we could never have achieved on TV. The scale and the growing tension in the narrative sits really well in an uninterrupted feature length story.

“There are some TV series that are destined for the big screen in order for them to breathe properly in every single way,” he added. “Ever since I saw episode one, season one of ‘Luther,’ I knew it was only a matter of time.”

Given the film’s ending, it seems likely neither Cross nor Elba is finished with the character. Despite this film’s faults, there is enough to admire here to make longtime fans and newcomers wonder where Luther will turn up next.