THE DARK TOWER

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THE DARK TOWER  * * 

Starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick and Jackie Earle Haley. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel.

Neither the catastrophic disaster fanboy circles would have you believe nor particularly any good, the long-gestating yet weirdly rushed film version of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series feels most like one of those ungainly mid-1990’s comic adaptations along the lines of Spawn or Tank Girl. There’s a distinctly junky, Johnny Mnemonic quality to the way the film hustles through setting up this enormous fantasy universe without sweating too much over the details, as if everyone involved is trying to get it overwith as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Sometime during the tortured ten-year pre-production process which lost its stars (Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem) and director (Ron Howard) the scope of the project somehow shrank from five planned pictures and an open-ended television program to this modestly-budgeted, ninety-five minute film. Somewhere along the line someone decided just to strip-mine a few elements from the first and third of King’s eight books and call it a day.

It’s a very pre-Lord Of The Rings approach to adaptation, and one that can’t help but seem like a relief now that every genre outing is seemingly required to adapt every damn word of the source material, splaying out into multiple divergents and maze runners or what have you. No, The Dark Tower isn’t a good movie. But it feels like it tells a complete story, which is depressingly rare.

Charismatic newcomer Tom Taylor stars as Jake Chambers, a young boy haunted by eerily specific dreams of an alternate dimension where a sinister man in black (Matthew McConaughey) harnesses the suffering of gifted children in an attempt to topple a tower that protects the world from an encroaching evil. The only person immune to the man in black’s wicked magick is a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba) who lost everyone he ever loved while trying to protect the tower.

Naturally Jake’s mom (Katheryn Winnick) and his rotten stepdad don’t believe a word of this mumbo-jumbo, but that’s before the folks from the local child psychiatry center are revealed to be hell-spawn henchmen wearing ill-fitting human skins. Soon Jake’s on the run, jumping through portals to another world so he can find that crotchety old cowboy before we all succumb to McConaughey’s breezy, laid-back malevolence.

“Have a good apocalypse,” says McConaughey to one of his lackeys, and days later I’m still torn as to whether his petulant performance is delightfully subversive or just plain awful. There’s a droll boredom with which he dispatches those in his way, casually ordering them to “stop breathing” before they fall to the ground dead. But just as often he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.

Elba and Taylor have a nice rapport, with the former bringing a gruff dignity to what should come off as ludicrous, particularly when they wind up back in modern day New York City and The Dark Tower briefly indulges in the superhero-movie formula fetish for remaking Crocodile Dundee. I’d claim to be tired of this fish-out-of-water routine, but it’s awfully hard not to laugh when Stringer Bell sternly accuses some street hookers of “forgetting the faces of their fathers.”

Jake’s psychic powers are called “the shine,” and The Dark Tower is chock full of little Easter eggs like that referencing other King novels and films. Without looking very hard I spotted shout-outs to Pennywise the clown, a dog that looks like Cujo, room 1408 and Christine the car. Given the prevalence of other problems with the film, it seems that the creative team could have spent the time and energy lavished on these in-jokes a bit more wisely.

Of course it all comes down to one of those CGI spectacle sequences with a single beam of light shooting up into the clouds, albeit this one looking a bit flimsier than most thanks to the aforementioned budgetary constraints. Some critics have been complaining that the movie is impossible to follow but I found it no more or less incoherent than Wonder Woman or similar summer blockbusters.

According to the claque of furious King fans in the theatre lobby there was tons of important information left out, but after listening to them for a little while I’m fairly confident that the movie wasn’t missing anything I’d have enjoyed. And after all, if you’re gonna make a lousy movie I appreciate the courtesy of keeping it brief.

 

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