A boy named Jake (well played by Tom Taylor) has a tortured home life and is known in school for his troubling behavior. Jake dreams of a place called Mid-World, where a supernatural gunslinger named Roland of Gilead (played by Idris Elba) pursues Walter, a vile magician (played by Matthew McConaughey). Known as “The Man in Black,” Walter seeks to destroy the world by knocking down the all-powerful dark tower at the center of the universe. Jake is able to travel to Mid-World and aide the Gunslinger, whose use of firearms is so awesome it ought to be deemed “Gun Fu” (trademark pending).
Although I’m a lifelong fan of Stephen King (his Pet Sematary was the first novel of length I ever finished) and read at least one of his books a year, I never finished his The Dark Tower series. I enjoyed the first three of the eight novels but grew distracted by alternative literary options, as well as dozens of other King novels. Over the years, I recognized how elements, themes, characters and places from that series would pop up in other King novels (particularly in Black House, a personal favorite). There was also an additional graphic novel series, as well as further Dark Tower tales, arriving long after we thought King was finally done with it.
The works of Tolkien are the clear influence but a better comparison is Star Wars. King not only established core characters and a mythos from the first sentence (“The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed”) but multiple worlds, alternating genres and even a specific slang. Clearly, the long-planned attempts to make this into a movie weren’t going to be easy. The current result (and unlikely to be the only adaptation) will work best for the uninitiated.
Nicolaj Arcel directs a hodgepodge screenplay, pillaging scraps of Dark Tower lore, as well as lots of King “Easter eggs” (more like references that go nowhere) and choice cuts from The Matrix, Terminator 2, The Golden Compass, The Giver and especially Last Action Hero, of all things. King devotees will likely respond to this as favorably as comic book fans did to Batman & Robin (which, like this, also has screenwriter Akiva Goldsman as a contributor).
Arcel’s film is everything I was afraid it’d be, as eight King novels have been crammed into a PG-13, 95-minute summer movie that has obviously been severely edited. The awful final scene, intended to set up a sequel that will never happen, appears to be a late addition re-shoot.
An absurd (if awfully compact) running time results in a rushed start, choppy midsection and an admittedly rousing finish. The Dark Tower is a mess but it’s also generously entertaining and headed for midnight movie cult fandom, not sequelitus. Arcel has cobbled together a goofy but grand fantasy, full of enormous, unrealized potential.
There are too many ill-defined components, like the nature of Walter’s minions, how kidnapping kids and hooking them up to a Tower-destroying ray works and who the heck Jackie Earle Haley is playing. The point of it all, particularly Jake’s Wizard of Oz-like journey to adulthood, doesn’t come across.
The scenes that work (Roland’s funny hospital encounter, most of the third act, Roland firing away, the visualizing of Mid-World and the campy showdown) are so exhilarating that they deserve a longer Director’s Cut to flesh them out.
Elba’s warm, expressive eyes provide Roland with the heart and angst the role requires. Yet, it’s McConaughey who steals the show with a performance that inches towards self-parody. There’s a playfulness and visible joy in McConaughey’s villainy, both silly and scary at the same time. Good performances, great scenes and an exciting score by composer Junkie XL keep this Tower at the level of a supreme guilty pleasure.
Two and a Half Stars