My smile slowly grew as I watched The Dark Tower. For another cinematic franchise based on a long series of fantasy books, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to a foundation film built for a presumably long haul, including a planned miniseries to go along with it. But director Nikolaj Arcel doesn’t waste time with this 95-minute film, which keeps the hefty lore light while still adhering to the weirdness of Stephen King’s writing. He may have glazed over several aspects of the book, but I’m perfectly okay with this breezier approach to convoluted fantasy that comes off more as lovable camp than a slog of messy writing.
The movie plops us quickly into its tale of juvenile fantasy and wish fulfillment with the young Jake (Tom Taylor) being haunted by vivid dreams of another world. It is a world of sorcerers and gunslingers, with mystical beasts peppered into its postapocalyptic setting. The sorcerer is the Man in Black, played by an open-shirted Matthew McConaughey—he seeks to destroy a tower that, when demolished, will bring about darkness, monsters, and all that evil jazz. The last remaining gunslinger trying to stop him is Roland, played by a stoic Idris Elba, who is able to combat the sorcerer’s forces with a gun forged from the sword Excalibur. What this amounts to is a weapon that gives bullets the magical powers to ricochet multiple times and from great distances. (I can only imagine how bullets might fire if Excalibur were turned into shotgun.)
The sinister plan of the Man in Black hinges on some strange tech that can harvest the energy from the screams of children, which is apparently the only force that can destroy the tower. Jake happens to be a prime candidate for the final push and is pursued by secret agents with loose skin worn as costumes akin to the lizard people of V. He is dragged into the Dark Tower’s world through some rusted portal technology and soon teams up with Roland on an adventure to save the tower. Oh, and Jake also has psychic powers that he can kinda-sorta control and allow him to talk through his mind and open portals. He doesn’t stand that much of a chance against the Man in Black, but at least he can do something.
I’ve not read the Stephen King novels, but I can already tell this picture is going to have its fans tearing out their hair. A good tell is how the film seems to glaze over its many fantasy elements, rarely slowing down to discuss the history of the Dark Tower world, how the tower itself affects our world, and what the rules are for magic. But if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really interested in all the exposition and enjoyed the film more for its casual approach to fantasy. In its strongest act, when Jake leads Roland into his own world, Roland is mystified by a television commercial featuring talking raccoons. Roland asks, “The animals still talk in your world?” “No,” Jake responds. “That’s a commercial . . . wait, what do you mean still?”
Roland never answers that question, and just as well. I highly doubt the exposition on the history of animals speaking the language of man is all that interesting. It’s more amusing to get lost within the weirdness of The Dark Tower rather than harp on explaining everything. The story is a simple enough one about a kid and a cowboy stopping a sorcerer from blowing up a tower; I don’t need it muddied up with a lengthy backstory on Roland’s past. First there were many gunslingers, and now there is only him. Got it.
The first act of the film seems to go through the usual motions of a fantasy world, with Jake attacked by random monsters that come in the form of snarling demons and floorboards. For as wild as it may sound to watch Jake be attacked by a house, it’s rather underwhelming and not very dangerous, considering he escapes without a single splinter. In one of the biggest clichés of fantasy creatures, Jake is tricked by a shapeshifting figure into believing his dead dad is alive and waiting for him in a dark forest. This kid must not have seen many movies or must’ve really wanted to watch Roland shoot his dead dad with a magical gun.
But when the adventure shifts focus back into Jake’s world, I started to enjoy the picture a little more. It wasn’t so much for the fish-out-of-water aspect in which Roland is amazed by gun stores and Coca-Cola, but more for the action that grows more bombastic and ridiculous as it goes on. Roland is able to punch the sorcerer’s agents with such force that they fly off the ground and cartoonishly fall to the floor. There’s a baffling moment when Roland and a henchman smash out of a window and land in a moving bus; not on top, but inside the bus, by somehow smashing through the windshield while they were falling to the street. That bus must’ve been in a hurry. I nearly laughed at the climactic battle, when Roland constantly ricochets bullets while the Man in Black catches each one of them in his hands as if they’re playing a tennis match. But I couldn’t hold back my laughter when Roland was able to decimate an entire magical citadel with one perfectly placed bullet.
This may make it sound as though The Dark Tower is so bad that it’s good. On some level it might be, with its often weak writing, but I found it to be more adorable for being so earnest with its weird adventure. There’s a tone reminiscent of those fantasy action pictures of the 1980s, in which kids could team up with their heroes and action scenes had a daring nature not overly concerned with seeming goofy. That said, it’s also cruelly dark at time, as the Man in Black murders his victims in a manner both effortless and dark, deciding on whether to set them on fire or stop their breathing.
What ultimately saves the picture is the acting trio. Tom Taylor holds his own pretty well as the adventurous kid, never overacting his role and doing his best to remain as poker-faced as Elba even when cracking jokes. Idris Elba is unflappable as a gunslinger who keeps a straight face while being overwhelmed with Jake’s world of painkillers and hot dogs (“Savages”). Matthew McConaughey is having a ball as the magical villain who speaks with his trademark relaxed voice. Their performances help make the story more fun to follow when the writing isn’t there.
The Dark Tower is deeply flawed, with writing that never pops, characters that never take off, fantasy elements that leave as fast they arrive, and action scenes that range anywhere from uninspired messes to goofy choreography. But there’s just something so endearing about its spirit and acting that make it charming enough to overlook most of its faults. There’s a high chance that given this sloppy foundation, we won’t see another Dark Tower movie, and that this film will probably be overlooked for not adhering closer to the novels or making more time for its lore. But I could easily see some kid growing up years from now looking back on this picture with nostalgic glee for that silly urban fantasy where a kid got to run around with Idris Elba shooting guns at Matthew McConaughey. On that level, I enjoyed this picture as a B-movie, though I’m sure many fans of the books will despise it for being nothing more than that.