Every so often in “The Dark Tower,” you catch a glimpse of what might have been: the might-have-been narrative ambition, the might-have-been pop mythology, the might-have-been genre assemblage. Based — loosely seems altogether too generous a word — on the Stephen King series, the movie is an unappealing hash of moviemaking clichés that, after much scurrying and blathering, devolves into a generic shoot’em-up. About the only thing holding it together is Idris Elba, whose irrepressible magnetism and man-of-stone solidity anchors this mess but can’t redeem it.
Mr. Elba plays the otherworldly Roland, whose name suggests the Arthurian legend with knights and so forth. Onscreen, though, Roland basically points, shoots and serves as an overqualified babysitter for Jake (Tom Taylor), a 14-year-old with psychic powers (he “shines” à la “The Shining”) who lives here and now on what Roland calls Keystone Earth. Roland, by contrast, lives in Mid-World, an incoherent realm of foggy woods, digital boogeymen, cinematic allusions, slavering nods to Mr. King’s voluminous oeuvre and some geological formations that may cause you to uselessly flash on images from John Ford westerns. (The movie was partly shot in the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa.)
For reasons that emerge in expository blurts, Jake and Roland travel between Mid-World and the considerably less interesting Keystone Earth. Also on the move is Walter, a.k.a. the man in black (Matthew McConaughey), an amusingly dissolute supervillain who, with weary hand waves and insinuating whispers, oozes about like a Vegas lounge lizard — with a hint of the Wicked Witch of the West snap – lording over heavily armed, face-changing, blood-lusting snarlers (Jackie Earle Haley, et. al). Mr. McConaughey, topped by an artfully arranged shock of black hair and flashing some tanned chest that makes you want to whip out the gold chains, has truly developed into a Zen master of sleaze.
The title refers to a mysteriously woo-woo, sky-piercingly tall spire that somehow holds both the universe’s various worlds and its monstrous threats in check. Walter wants to destroy the dark tower; Roland intends to protect it. Jake, who tends to look as confused as the audience may feel, doesn’t yet have a mission, though giving this twerp a purpose — a kind of wee hero’s journey (“Surrender, Jake”!) — seems to be the endgame. It’s a default solution, and reads like a cop-out. After all, if Stephen King hands you a complex fiction that turns pulpy tropes into a dense mythology with its own language and heavyweight heroes like Roland, wouldn’t you run with at least some of it?
The “Dark Tower” series can be traced to Mr. King’s love of, among other inspirations, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” novels as well as Sergio Leone’s masterly 1966 film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which I suppose explains the duster Roland wears and an empty nod to spaghetti westerns. So, there’s that. Mostly, there are clotted action scenes, gun fetishism, bad writing and stop-and-go rhythms that suggest a longer version may once have existed. The director, Nikolaj Arcel, shares screenwriting credit and blame with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen; whatever they thought they were doing here remains as mysterious as Walter’s hair product.
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