Every so often in The Dark Tower you catch a glimpse of what might have been: the might-have-been narrative ambition, the might-have-been pop mythology, the might-have-been genre assemblage.
Based — largely appears altogether too generous a word — on the Stephen King franchise, The Dark Tower film is an unappealing hash of filmmaking clichés that, after much scurrying and blathering, turns into a generic shoot’em-up. About the only thing holding it together is Idris Elba, whose irrepressible magnetism and man-of-stone solidity anchors this mess but can’t redeem it.
Mr. Elba plays the supernatural Roland, whose name evokes the Arthurian legend with knights and so forth. Onscreen, though, Roland basically points, shoots and acts as an overqualified babysitter for Jake (Tom Taylor), a 14-year-old with super powers (he “shines” in “The Shining”) who resides here and now on what Roland refers as Keystone Earth. Roland, in contrary, lives in Mid-World, an incoherent world of foggy woods, digital boogeymen, cinematic intimations, slavering nods to Mr. King’s voluminous work of art and some geological formations that may make you uselessly flash on images from John Ford westerns. (Some parts of the film were shot in the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa.)
For reasons that emerge in expository blurts, Jake and Roland travel between Mid-World and the considerably less interesting Keystone Earth. Also on The Dark Tower movie is Walter, also known as the man in black (Matthew McConaughey), an interestingly dissolute supervillain who, with tedious hand waves and ingratiating whispers, brings about like a Vegas lounge lizard — with a touch of the Wicked Witch of the West snap – lording over heavily armed, face-morphing, blood-lusting snarlers (Jackie Earle Haley and others). Mr. McConaughey, dressed with an artfully arranged shock of black hair and showing some tanned chest that makes you want to whip out the gold chains, has genuinely developed into a Zen master of sleaze.
The title ‘The Dark Tower’ refers to a mysteriously woo-woo, sky-piercingly tall spire that somehow holds both the universe’s various worlds and its monstrous threats in check. Walter wants to take down the dark tower; Roland wants to protect it. Jake, who tends to look as confused as the viewers may feel, doesn’t yet have a mission, even though giving this insignificant character a purpose — a sort of wee hero’s adventure (“Surrender, Jake”!) — looks as though to be the endgame. It’s a default solution, and reads like a cop-out. After all, if Stephen King hands you a complex fiction that turns pulpy tropes into a dense mythology with its own language and heavyweight heroes like Roland, wouldn’t you run with at least some of it?
The Dark Tower franchise can be traced to Mr. King’s love of, amongst other inspirations, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” books as well as Sergio Leone’s epic 1966 movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which I assume explains the duster Roland wears and an empty nod to spaghetti westerns. So, there’s that. For the most part, there are clotted action shots, gun fetishism, bad writing and stop-and-go paces that hint at a longer version may once have existed. The director, Nikolaj Arcel, shares screenwriting credit and blame with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen; whatever they thought they were doing here remains as mysterious as Walter’s hair product.