18th Aug2017

‘The Dark Tower’ Review

by Joel Harley

Stars: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Ben Gavin, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Nicholas Pauling, Michael Barbieri, José Zúñiga | Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel | Directed by Nikolaj Arcel

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“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” As opening lines go, The Gunslinger’s should be up there with Pride and Prejudice’s universally acknowledged truth for sheer iconicism. We say should be, for Stephen King’s epic fantasy Western always was one of his most underappreciated, and less read.

Hence director Nikolaj Arcel and his screenwriters (plus committee, who had a big hand in this aberration) jettisoning that powerful, brilliant, stark opening in favour of modern-day New York and a teenage protagonist. For those unfamiliar with the books, The Dark Tower won’t be even nearly so offensive. Constant readers will probably shudder at the plot description alone.

Troubled teenager and dead-dad afflicted Jake (Taylor) suffers from strange, apocalyptic nightmares and visions he can barely make sense of. A great Lord of the Rings-esque tower – dark, but the only thing keeping our world safe from ancient, evil forces who would do it harm. An army of malevolent creatures wearing ill-fitting human faces. The man in black, who is determined to destroy the Tower. The kidnapped children he needs to accomplish this goal. And the gunslinger – the last of his kind, and the only thing keeping the man in black from toppling the Tower.

But these are no mere dreams, and those malignant forces pursue Jake, forcing him to flee his world in search of answers. Here he meets Roland Deschain (Elba), the gunslinger, broken and disaffected after the death of his father. Deschain seeks not so much to protect the Tower as to wreak vengeance upon the man in black (Walter O’ Dim, played by McConaughey). Harnessing Jake’s power and using it as bait to draw Walter out, together the gunslinger and the kid enter a battle which could have great repercussions for our very universe.

Such fluff is par for the course for the YA fantasy The Dark Tower positions itself as, but is much less acceptable as an adaptation of a beloved (well, by those who read it…) Stephen King series. It excises almost every recognisable element of the books, save for the barest bones of the characters and some of the set-dressing. The larger King universe Eater eggs are fun, but they’re scant replacement for the meat of The Gunslinger, which this ideally should have been.

One feels worst of all for Elba and McConaughey, who are well-cast but saddled with the worst writing of their respective careers (unless you want to be cruel and bring up The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). Neither of them gets out of talking about ‘the shine’ with any dignity (a shoehorned reference to The Shining, which actively hurts like a bug bite everytime someone brings it up), but poor McConaughey is absolutely ruined by the script, which has him use the word ‘magicks’ twice, with a straight face and bad midlife crisis hair. He’s been fan-cast as Walter/the man in black/Randall Flagg for years now, so it’s a shame that this movie should let him down so badly.

Elba doesn’t fare much better, his gruff, hyper-competent gunslinger stuck with a predictable refusing-the-call/reluctant hero arc, and an oversimplified dead dad past. Turns out that not even the mighty Idris can make Roland’s daft oath sound anything less than embarrassing. That he looks and sounds quite embarrassed while reciting it doesn’t help either. The actors are at once the greatest reason to watch The Dark Tower and also its biggest casualty. But at least the young Taylor kid isn’t so bad! With McConaughey almost at career worst (forgetting about The Next Generation again) and Elba desperately trying to retain his cool, the young man emerges looking just fine.

Detached from the source material and taken as its own thing, the film is fun enough. There’s a Thor-esque segment of fish-out-of-water humour for Roland which raises a mild smile, and his action sequences are all of good value. In its otherworldly desert sequences, the film looks great, and Jackie Earle Haley is typically enjoyable as the slimy Sayre. Whether audiences will follow the convoluted story is debateable (especially given how it barely bothers to explain a number of key plot points) but it is a very slight cut above most 12A YA fantasy features.

But that’s simply not the audience it will find, nor would it ever have. Dark Tower and more casual King fans alike will feel betrayed by this cynical, de-fanged, studio-manufactured mess. In chasing the wider audience, it winds up alienating everybody, embarrassing its actors, and doing King’s epic no justice at all. The Tower has already fallen.

The Dark Tower is in UK cinemas now.

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