**1/2 out of ****
(for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action, and language)
Released: August 4, 2017
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick
Forget what you’ve heard: as pulpy entertainments go, The Dark Tower is a pretty decent diversion.
Not having read Stephen King’s eight-book multiverse saga, I couldn’t tell you how much this brisk 90-minute adaptation butchers its source, though it’s safe to assume that it does. Taken on its own terms, however, The Dark Tower is a simple, sleek genre mash-up that should satisfy popcorn chompers just fine.
It’s impressive, actually, how director Nikolaj Arcel effectively distills the labyrinth narrative’s core premise, A tall, dark tower stands at the center of space and time, holding the universe together. As long as it stands so does existence, but if the tower falls then say goodbye to everything.
Legend has it that the mind of a child may be able to bring it down. A malevolent supernatural figure called The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey) abducts children and brings them to his lair in another dimension to see if their brains can be the key to trigger his apocalyptic ends.
Standing against these schemes is the last Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a defender of the Tower. He comes to the aid of Jake Chambers, a boy whose psychic connection to this great beyond could be turned to cataclysmic means if the Man In Black gets to him first.
It’s your basic Good vs. Evil construct, told via a Western/Sci-Fi genre fusion.
To strip this down, Arcel’s movie is (by all accounts) not an adaptation of what King has written but, simply, a sequel to it of sorts, or at least a new story that essentially lives and exists in this same mythos. Whatever the depths of King’s multiverse are, they’re barely scratched here. This movie isn’t particularly obsessed with world-building.
That, understandably, should disappoint fans and even frustrate newcomers who’d be curious to see a full-fledged introduction to what King created, but the limited story told here stays within its means, and works.
Even so, those limits are obvious, most notably in how the Tower itself remains uncharted. It’s never explored, visually or narratively, reducing this crucial titular centerpiece to nothing more than a monolithic McGuffin. The climax, too, is so, er, anti-climactic that it’s a cheat, but the drop-off to that letdown isn’t very steep.
What’s left are the three central characters, and whatever sense of style director Arcel can bring to the material. All things considered, they all acquit themselves rather well.
McConaughey brings a more sinister authenticity to his evil archetype than the trailer’s scenery-chewing clips suggested, as Arcel leaves many takes seen in the promos on the cutting room floor in lieu of more restrained options. The Man In Black is still a creature of genre, but McConaughey calibrates him well. Tom Taylor is convincing, too, never obnoxiously precocious as the kid who gets caught up in this middle of this cosmic struggle.
Elba, however, is the hero in more ways than one, bringing a true mythic quality to his role as the Gunslinger. There’s a rugged swagger to his persona, from an Eastwood-like stoicism to a dry Ford-like sense of humor. He brings a great physical command to the role as well, brandishing his superbly designed and tailored costume – along with his weaponry – as well as anyone since Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.
Arcel proves himself a solid stylist, never resorting to slow/fast time-ramping (that’s Zack Synder’s crutch) or chaotic (Michael) Bayhem. Clear, well-shot action cut together fluidly, with straightforward yet inventively slick slow-motion grandeur, Arcel’s direction is more than adequate. It’s legitimately satisfying.
The Dark Tower doesn’t do justice to the Tolkien-sized world that King’s books built. Shoot, it barely does justice to what Elba brings to the screen, and it won’t leave anyone hungry for more. But it should leave the average moviegoer thrilled by the time they spent, even if the ride is also instantly forgettable.