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'Luther' review: Idris Elba, as usual, lifts show

"Luther": The premiere of season 3 of the acclaimed psychological police drama starring Golden Globe winner Idris Elba ("The Wire," "The Office") as dogged British detective John Luther. Credit: BBC

Alert to "Luther" fans: The fourth season begins in a few hours, and now is as good a time as any to catch up on one of the finest small screen actors working anywhere. Idris Elba is in fact expected to leave "Luther" behind after this current season, unless he does a big-screen prequel. Speaking of the big screen, his "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," arrives Nov. 29 and -- you heard it hear first -- Elba will get an Oscar nomination and probably a win, too. (Wait -- you didn't hear that here first? Oh...) 

"Luther," BBC America, Tuesday through Friday nights, 10

What it's about: A hard rain falls, and choppers thump overhead while SWAT teams move in, guns drawn, and then, just as all hell is about to break loose, it's over. John Luther (Idris Elba) emerges from a blazing garage, with the bad guy by the scruff of the neck, walking out of the flames almost as causally as if he just walked out of a grocer's shop somewhere in London with a gallon of milk. But as the third season, or "series," begins, Det. Chief Inspector Luther of the "Met" is in fact carrying baggage -- his estranged wife was murdered in the first season, while a trail of unsolved deaths and disappearances -- all bad guys -- may or may not have had something to do with him.

But is brilliant, mercurial, obsessive, effective Luther above the law or just enforcing it? That's the question he confronts immediately, when former detective and hard case George Stark (David O'Hara) is brought out of retirement to secretly investigate John. Stark has help: former Luther colleague, Det. Sergeant Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and maybe even DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), who idolizes John, but may finally have his doubts.

Meanwhile, there's a serial killer at large -- there always is. Also, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), the murderer who became John's unconventional "adviser" in the first season, makes an especially dramatic return later this week.

My say: "Luther" may be Britain's most successful cop import since "Prime Suspect," but it's still at times (truthfully) a potboiler with some predictable procedural twists and enough beady-eyed serial killers to make even "Dexter" a little envious. But what's special about "Luther" is pretty special, and just to get straight to what, or who, that is: Idris Elba. He's a wonder here, and always has been. All charisma and command, he blasts through the screen in every shot while his performance is a constant reminder that the craft, at its best, is a gossamer of countless little details that add up to something magical. Fans of "The Wire" -- where he starred over three seasons -- know how special the guy is, and so do fans of "Luther" who had better get their fill now because there are no plans for a fourth "series," show creator Neil Cross said last week. That's too bad because there's so much more to explore with this character, or at least more to resolve.

Bottom line: Watch Elba now before he sails off to big screen super-stardom. He's still terrific.

Grade: B+

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