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MOVIES: The Dark Tower - Review

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

These words began a sprawling, seven-volume narrative that has long been considered the pinnacle of Stephen King's career as a storyteller, and fans of the Dark Tower series have spent years begging for someone to bring the characters of Roland Deschain and The Man in Black to life on the big screen. After being in development for nearly a decade, with multiple directors, producers and writers attached at various points, the long-awaited adaptation of The Dark Tower has finally arrived, but the epic scope of King's novels has been reduced to a lackluster "adventure" that feels more like the recent string of YA literature adaptations than it does the opening chapter of a large-scale fantasy saga.

The mistakes are numerous, but chief among them is the decision to move the focus of the narrative away from the source material's protagonist and focus instead on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a 12-year-old boy from New York City tormented by visions of a tower that stands at the center of the universe, and the black-clad sorcerer hell-bent on destroying it and allowing an army of demons to devour the worlds it protects. These visions are actually glimpses into another realm, where The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) has been cultivating kidnapped children and using their minds to launch repeated assaults against the tower. The film never bothers to explain why children are necessary for this endeavor, or how exactly their minds are being weaponized - who cares about the details, right?

Through a series of implausible events that find Jake pursued through the streets of New York by creatures that wear human faces like some sort of ghastly Halloween mask, the boy finds himself in Mid-World, where he encounters another figure from his visions. Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) is the last remaining gunslinger, which will register with fans of King's novels, but if you're expecting the film to give any sort of context into what that means or why it's important, think again - the guy carries a pair of big-ass revolvers, and that's all you really need to know, apparently. Roland is on the trail of The Man in Black, eager to exact revenge for a series of atrocities committed against his family, and at first he considers Jake little more than a distraction, but as the boy doggedly follows him across the crumbling wastelands, a bond begins to form between the aging warrior and the stouthearted schoolboy.

This relationship, such a crucial component of the novels from which The Dark Tower draws its inspiration, is one of the few things the film manages to get right. Losing his father at a young age and saddled with a stepdad pursuing a gold medal in douchebaggery, it's easy to see why Jake would gravitate toward a strong role model like Roland. And with friends and family long dead, the gunslinger is sorely in need of companionship, despite his frequent protestations to the contrary. The connection between the characters feels genuine, and with these two actors on their game, the moral choice that Roland faces in the first novel could have made for a huge emotional beat - if the film didn't bypass it completely in favor of a much "safer" ending that was likely deemed more palatable for mainstream audiences.

The other key relationship in this story - between Roland and The Man in Black - is a huge missed opportunity here. Even though he frequently refers to Roland as "old friend," we never get any sense of their history, save for a single flashback to a previous meeting on the battlefield. McConaughey's character is never clearly defined, and registers as little more than a standard villain archetype - he's evil for the sake of being evil. The idea of McConaughey in this role sounds good on paper, especially considering how complex this character was in King's books, but the onscreen realization finds him saddled with some truly dreadful dialogue (which he delivers as though he's on a stage, playing to the back of the house) and lacking any of the charisma that makes his literary counterpart so fascinating.

Fans may find solace in Elba's performance, capturing the essence of the last gunslinger even as the script gives him precious little to build from. There are also numerous references to the Dark Tower novels - phrases like "Sombra Corporation" and "North Central Positronics" are littered throughout, and events from several different books are retooled and repurposed for inclusion in this new version of Roland's tale. But at a scant 95 minutes, The Dark Tower attempts to cram far too much information, exposition and world-building into a film that can't possibly support it. This is one of the rare cases where a bad movie could have been improved by a longer running time, where everything is given just a little bit of breathing room, an opportunity for subtlety or nuance to creep in.

The Dark Tower features a couple of decent action sequences, the highlight of which is a third-act shootout in a demon-infested nightclub that finally gives audiences a glimpse of Roland's abilities. Director Nikolaj Arcel does a commendable job showcasing the almost superhuman speed with which the gunslinger can reload his ancient revolvers and dispatch a seemingly endless number of adversaries, but the inevitable showdown between Roland and his nemesis is a major letdown, devolving into a cringe-worthy mess of slow-motion and bad CG effects. There's no weight or gravitas to anything that transpires in these final moments, which is somewhat of a running theme, and the lack of character development leaves us with no real investment in this battle - or this film, for that matter. Luckily, as King himself wrote in the first volume of his saga, "there are other worlds than these."

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