‘The Dark Tower’

The di­men­sion-hop­ping fan­tasy ‘The Dark Tower’ is a stiff riff on the nov­els

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com

In “The Dark Tower,” Matthew McConaughey plays a fig­ure known as the Man in Black, who turns out to be not a famed coun­try­west­ern singer but an ex­tremely evil sor­cerer. Sport­ing a dark coat, an open­necked shirt and an air of louche post-McCon­nais­sance deca­dence, the Man in Black stalks through the movie like a Ve­gas lounge lizard, or­der­ing the peo­ple around him to do things like “burn,” “stop breath­ing ” and “kill each other.” They al­most al­ways com­ply.

The one guy who doesn’t is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba, look­ing faintly bored), the last liv­ing de­scen­dant of an an­cient lin­eage of pis­tol­pack­ing war­riors known as Gun­slingers. Mys­te­ri­ously im­mune to what the Man in Black calls his “mag­ics,” Roland is the only war­rior who can stop this stylish archvil­lain from de­stroy­ing the fa­bled Dark Tower and un­leash­ing chaos across the mul­ti­verse.

Weirdly enough, af­ter emerg­ing from the thor­oughly mag­ics-free ex­pe­ri­ence that is “The Dark Tower,” I found my­self think­ing the mul­ti­verse could ac­tu­ally use a bit more chaos, which is cer­tainly say­ing some­thing th­ese days. What­ever its prob­lems, its trim, 95-minute tale of di­men­sion-hop­ping war­riors is hardly the im­pen­e­tra­ble, undis­ci­plined mess we might have ex­pected af­ter in­dus­try re­ports of dis­as­trous test screen­ings and last-minute reshoots. In its current state, “The Dark Tower” doesn’t seem to have been con­ceived with any of the am­bi­tion and grandeur needed to qual­ify as a catas­tro­phe of that mag­ni­tude. From start to fin­ish, the movie ex­udes a stiff, joy­less co­her­ence.

This is as fine a place as any to an­nounce that I haven’t read a word of Stephen King’s mas­sive, multi-threaded “Dark Tower” fan­tasy-novel oc­ta­l­ogy, though I doubt even a thor­ough­go­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with the ma­te­rial would make a dif­fer­ence. In feed­ing that best­selling prop­erty through the dull-edged cheese grater of Hol­ly­wood fran­chise cin­ema, the Dan­ish writer-di­rec­tor Niko­laj Ar­cel (“A Royal Af­fair”) and his fel­low screen­writ­ers have fol­lowed through with their stated in­tent to de­liver not a straight­for­ward adap­ta­tion but, rather, a riffy, stand­alone se­quel of sorts. (A par­al­lel “Dark Tower” tele­vi­sion se­ries fea­tur­ing many of the same ac­tors, in­clud­ing Elba, is cur­rently in the works.)

Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, what view­ers are left with is a flat, work­man­like com­pen­dium of apoc­a­lyp­tic por­tents, blood­less killings and highly de­riv­a­tive sci-fi-fan­tasy-western images. J.R.R. Tolkien was re­port­edly a key in­flu­ence on King’s nov­els, which may ex­plain why the movie’s ver­sion of the Dark Tower looks like an Eye of Sau­ron with self-es­teem is­sues. The in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex is un­der­stand­able: We’re in­formed at the out­set, af­ter all, that the tower can be de­stroyed by “the mind of a child.” To that end, the Man in Black and his masked min­ions have been ab­duct­ing kids left and right, then us­ing a sin­is­ter brain-drain ma­chine to chip away at the Dark Tower from afar.

The one child whose mind is strong enough to top­ple the tower com­pletely is a 14-year-old New Yorker named Jake Cham­bers (Tom Tay­lor), whose tremen­dous psy­chic gifts — shades of “The Shin­ing” — are ap­par­ent in his per­sis­tent night­mares and eerie draw­ings of Roland and the Man in Black. Run­ning away from his con­cerned mom (Kath­eryn Win­nick) and jerky step­dad (Ni­cholas Paul­ing), Jake is promptly whisked away from Earth (or Key­stone Earth, as it’s known in mul­ti­verse terms) through a net­work of in­ter­di­men­sional por­tals, only to land on a des­o­late planet whose rugged land­scapes might put you in a clas­sicwest­ern state of mind even be­fore Elba’s Gun­slinger shows up.

There’s not much more to the plot. Den­nis Hays­bert turns up briefly and smiles his benev­o­lent smile as Roland’s fa­ther, Steven Deschain. The Man in Black tracks and tor­ments Roland and Jake from one hide­away to the next, at times sac­ri­fic­ing ex­pe­di­ence in order to kill as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. To­ward the end, Roland ini­ti­ates Jake into the mys­ter­ies of the Gun­slinger code, which in­volves amass­ing a lot of bul­lets but also recit­ing some high­minded mumbo-jumbo about the im­por­tance of tran­scend­ing the phys­i­cal weapon.

“I kill with my heart,” Roland de­clares, a du­bi­ous line that some might well in­ter­pret as car­ry­ing a faint echo of “guns don’t kill peo­ple” rhetoric. Which is not to say that “The Dark Tower” is any more or less firear­mob­sessed than the av­er­age PG-13-rated ac­tion flick or that there’s any­thing par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing about the dull shootouts that bring the movie to its ex­ceed­ingly unimag­i­na­tive close. The mind of a child could have done bet­ter.

Ilze Kit­shoff Sony Pic­tures

IDRIS ELBA, as Roland, is a Gun­slinger who takes aim at stop­ping a vil­lain from de­stroy­ing the Dark Tower. Look for Elba in the coming “Dark Tower” TV se­ries too.

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