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Idris Elba wearing a suit, his face bloodied, as he looks intensely off camera. Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

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Netflix’s Luther movie makes the Idris Elba cop show bigger, wilder, weirder, and uglier

Andy Serkis’ billionaire baddie is a big new swing for a story that’s usually just about pounding crime into submission

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Luther: The Fallen Sun is a wild way to continue a BBC series. The show, centering on antihero John Luther (Idris Elba), has featured many unhinged villains over its five seasons, including dice-rolling Dungeons & Dragons fans, killer heart surgeons, and Satanic blood-drinkers. Netflix’s feature-length continuation pushes even further. Luther is a policeman who’s so violent, the only way to justify his vigilante actions is to put him up against the most heinous and outlandish crimes imaginable. This time out, he faces a cyber-savvy killer played by Andy Serkis. He’s a nearly omnipotent internet villain, bombastic and as oversized as the movie’s Netflix budget likely was. This is the most deranged dip into Luther’s world yet.

Directed by Jamie Payne and written by series creator Neil Cross, The Fallen Sun begins with a perfect example of the sort of nightmare-inducing setup that made Luther such a hit. A young man, Calum, gets an ominous call from a stranger, blackmailing him into driving to an isolated location. But he’s waylaid by something horrific in a sequence that’ll immediately join the annals of Luther’s best scares. This bleak start to the story sparks a cat-and-mouse conflict between Luther and the blackmailer, David Robey (Serkis). But while the man behind the killings is terrifying — and extremely theatrical, with Serkis bringing him to life via some powerfully bad wigs — the real goal is to make viewers scared of the way he uses the internet to find and target his victims.

Billionaire criminal David Robey (Andy Serkis, in burgundy bathrobe and a thick, wavy wig) stands by a wall of windows overlooking London, with a headless, armless angel statue in the foreground, in Luther: Fallen Sun Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

The central premise — an extremely online killer who manipulates people by threatening to expose their secrets — taps into some familiar human fears about exposure and public shaming. Netflix viewers have seen this setup before, in the chilling Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance, which The Fallen Sun feels heavily indebted to. But in one of Fallen Sun’s smartest twists — and biggest departures from that Black Mirror entry — the specific details of Robey’s blackmail info on his victims rarely get revealed, leaving those secrets up to the audience’s imagination. It’s a choice that works on multiple levels: We’re left to think the worst, or in more tragic circumstances, decide the victim’s shame was misplaced, making it even easier to exploit.

The person who feels that the most, empathizing with those poor lost souls, is John Luther. Returning to the role that won him a Golden Globe and four Emmy nominations, Idris Elba is still a force to be reckoned with as the titular cop. There’s an almost Columbo-like nature to the way he sniffs out the evil of the rich and privileged, and his rumpled coat is surely a nod to Peter Falk’s iconic detective. But where Falk portrayed an underestimated genius, Elba is a barely repressed hurricane in human form. Luther is haunted by the violence he’s seen, and the violence it’s inspired in him. It’s a heady mix. With his gruffly charming London accent and near-constant fury, Elba is still infinitely watchable as the explosive, justice-hungry cop.

Like many classic TV detectives, Luther is something of a Luddite. He uses a flip phone and many burners. He doesn’t have a social media presence. That puts him on the outside of this case looking in, as the only person in the investigation who can see what others can’t: that the internet and smart-home devices let the killer spy on and control his victims.

Cynthia Erivo, arms crossed, stands in front of an entire wall of monitors showing different images and data in Netflix’s Luther: Fallen Sun Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

While the hunt for Robey is classic Luther fodder in some ways, he also represents The Fallen Sun’s biggest digression from the series’ formula. Where previous Luther villains have operated on smaller, more grounded scales, as lone-wolf murderers and gangland bosses, the Netflix budget and movie framework pushes the film into more outrageous territory. Robey isn’t just a wealthy and powerful killer; he’s eventually revealed as the mastermind behind a global operation, bringing one of the original internet urban legends to life.

The rumors have been around almost as long as the internet: Red Rooms are supposedly nefarious illegal sites where online viewers can pay to see real rape, torture, and murder. Filmmakers have drooled over the lurid possibilities of the Red Room myth for decades now, making The Fallen Sun feel like a throwback to ’00s horror like My Little Eye, FeardotCom, Cry_Wolf, and Untraceable. It’s an interesting contradiction: The more intimate aspects of Robey’s plan, built around using people’s darkest online secrets to humiliate them, feels viscerally contemporary and real. But his grimy underground torture rooms filled with camcorders, designed to please creepy online men around the world, feel like a remnant of internet fearmongering long since past.

To enjoy any of Luther, you have to understand that it’s a fantasy on multiple levels. It imagines a police vigilante who fights the worst parts of the institution he represents in order to catch killers and protect the vulnerable. But he’s also constantly demolishing civilians’ civil liberties. That’s why deeply vile, uncompromising villains like Robey are key. Justifying Luther’s behavior means focusing on the most abhorrent crimes possible, which ultimately makes Luther feel more like a horror series than a police procedural.

The Fallen Sun takes that dynamic to the next level, making its villain not only a sadistic killer, but an untouchable billionaire with an army and a secret Bond-movie-style Norwegian underground lair. Fallen Sun fits the always-surreal nature of Luther and its imaginary world of good and evil, but the expanded world, short-form story, and hyper-exaggerated villainy does lessen the impact of Luther’s moral quest to stop Robey.

John Luther (Idris Elba) sits in a very dark room with his hands folded in front of him and stares into the camera, surrounded by three men in face-covering balaclavas, in Luther: The Fallen Sun Photo: John Wilson/Netflix

Much of Luther’s power comes from Elba’s ruffled cop and his conflicted heart. While John does terrible things that often make the audience unsure whether to root for him, he does them for reasons he believes are right. Thanks to the long-form nature of the original TV series, there’s time for him to make connections and friendships, alliances and enemies. The Fallen Sun has no time for any of that. There’s no misguided young person for him to protect, no new partner to annoy, cajole, and ultimately bond with and save. While Elba is still the beating heart of the story, he’s laser-focused on Robey and his ever-escalating crimes. The violence John is facing is so outlandish, with such high stakes, that Luther rarely feels conflicted. He seems more like a two-dimensional, righteous antihero here than the complex vigilante he was in the original series.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Luther’s original, terrific five seasons still exist. It’s easy to revisit them for depth, character development, and overarching arcs filled with morally complex quandaries. In contrast, The Fallen Sun is here to offer up giant set-piece killings, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the horror-TV heyday of Hannibal. It’s for everyone who wants to watch a rarely better Idris Elba on a two-hour-plus rampage through London, demolishing anything that gets in his way. And it’s a playground for a delightfully demented performance from Serkis, who chews scenery just as consistently as his character inventively kills innocent people just to toy with Luther. Fallen Sun is a condensed, balls-to-the-wall reinvention of the Luther viewers know and love, with the sadism and showmanship turned up to 11, and some classic internet nightmare-fuel thrown in for good measure.

Luther: The Fallen Sun is now streaming on Netflix.