MOVIES: Elba can’t save the lack­lus­ter “Dark Tower”

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - By Rick Bent­ley Tri­bune News Ser­vice

★¼55 Fan­tasy adap­ta­tion. PG-13. 93 min­utes.

If “The Dark Tower” had just been an ac­tion film laced with grand sweeps of magic and tex­tured touches of sci­ence fic­tion based on an orig­i­nal script, there’s enough in­ter­est­ing mo­ments to earn the film a pass­ing grade. The sad fact is it’s not an orig­i­nal story from writer/di­rec­tor Niko­laj Ar­cel, but based on a wildly pop­u­lar se­ries of eight books by the mas­ter of macabre, Stephen King.

Once the com­par­isons start, the film ends up a painfully pale ver­sion of the books that hops, skips and jumps through key points. This fly­over ap­proach is such a faint rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal prod­uct that any­one who has read at least one of the books will feel like the pro­duc­tion was made by Ar­cel aim­ing to con­nect with the au­di­ence through his eye and his hand and not his mind and his heart.

Un­like the books that start in a bar­ren world that’s home to the last pro­tec­tor of the uni­verse, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), bet­ter known as the last Gun­fighter, the tale opens in mod­ern day New York. A young­ster, Jake Cham­bers (Tom Tay­lor), has been haunted by vivid night­mares for a year. He dreams of a world where a dark fig­ure kid­naps chil­dren to use their minds as a weapon to de­stroy the Dark Tower.

The tower is at the cen­ter of the uni­verse and should it fall, the dark­ness wait­ing just out­side the fringes will come flow­ing in to de­stroy ev­ery­thing. His par­ents are con­vinced that Jake needs psy­cho­log­i­cal help in­clud­ing a week­end in an asy­lum.

Jake avoids the pro­gram and be­gins to find clues that re­veal these dreams he has been hav­ing are in fact vi­sions of an­other world. He stum­bles on a way to make the jour­ney to the land he’s drawn so vividly af­ter his dreams where he meets the Gun­slinger. To­gether, they must stop a pow­er­ful wiz­ard (Matthew McConaughey) from re­leas­ing the uni­verse-end­ing evil.

Not only has Ar­cel stripped the King story of its thick mythol­ogy but he’s re­duced the pro­duc­tion to a stan­dard Old West tale where the lone good guy must face off against the man in black. This in­cludes a se­ries of shootouts in both uni­verses un­til the fi­nal show­down at the just O.K. Cor­ral.

A great ac­tor can help a script, and Elba turns in his usual in­tense per­for­mance, breath­ing life into the Gun­slinger that doesn’t come from the writ­ing. He knows just how to play a char­ac­ter with the kind of raw strength that makes most men and women weak but still give the char­ac­ter enough room for an em­pa­thy that makes him a friend to the weak. Elba is the big­gest sav­ing grace in a waste­land of woes.

For an ac­tor with lim­ited cre­den­tials, Tay­lor steps up to make Jake in­ter­est­ing both as an 11 year old haunted by over­whelm­ing im­ages of evil but also as the best hope for sav­ing the day. Credit Ar­cel for never push­ing him too much — a clever way to elim­i­nate a lot of the places where a young ac­tor could have stum­bled.

The weak­est cast­ing is McConaughey. He has played his fair share of rogues and vil­lains over the years, but with “The Dark Tower,” McConaughey never reaches the level of be­ing so sin­is­ter that his mere pres­ence in the scene causes chills. McConaughey tries to be in­tim­i­dat­ing and men­ac­ing, but his per­for­mance never gets any bet­ter than it be­ing just all right (all right, all right).

It is sin­ful that with a moun­tain of ma­te­rial to work with, Ar­cel’s script never amounts to much more than a hill of ac­cept­able ac­tion-el­e­ment beans. There are hints about the worlds that Jake and the Gun­slinger live in hav­ing a deep con­nec­tion, from ev­ery­one speak­ing English to an aban­doned theme park. But, in what can only be de­scribed as an over­whelm­ing de­sire to get the film done in just over 90 min­utes, the fi­nal story is like read­ing a con­densed ver­sion of the King books done by a group of third graders.

The ac­tion is good, but that only makes up slightly for all of the writ­ing prob­lems. A list of those mis­cues could be stacked up to make their own im­pres­sive dark tower.

Those who end up in the the­ater with­out any knowl­edge of King’s much her­alded work will find “The Dark Tower” to be gen­er­ally en­ter­tain­ing. Ar­cel does com­mit a ma­jor emo­tional mis­take with the end­ing that is un­for­giv­able. It’s dif­fi­cult to ex­plain with­out re­veal­ing a ma­jor plot point, but it’s safe to say a re­ac­tion to a dev­as­tat­ing in­ci­dent is treated with all the re­morse of break­ing a vase.

That’s a su­per-size mis­cue but at that point “The Dark Tower” has lost all the mythol­ogy that made the books so good, and one more mis­take re­ally doesn’t mat­ter that much. The best thing to say is adap­ta­tions of King’s works of­ten suf­fer from a weak end­ing. Ar­cel avoided that by mov­ing so far away from the source ma­te­rial any end­ing is a wel­come re­lief.

Kitshoff, pro­vided by Columbia Pic­tures,

Roland (Idris Elba) and Wal­ter (Matthew McConaughey) in Columbia Pic­tures' "The Dark Tower."Ilze

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