Cinema Dispatch: The Dark Tower

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The Dark Tower and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel

2007.  That’s when the first rumblings of this movie’s production started to surface which it’s been LANGUISHING in cinematic limbo for a decade now. Remember when Ron Howard was gonna turn the Dark Tower into a simultaneous Television/Film experience?  I sure do!  Now I love me some Stephen King, but The Dark Tower was one of those things that I just let pass me by and it seemed like for a while there that Hollywood was going to do the same, but Sony decided to take this ball and cross it over the finish line in whatever state it ultimately ended up in.  With so much going against this movie, from the hit or miss nature of Stephen King films, the troubled production which included three directors working on this over its ten year gestation, to even the fact that releasing a high concept fantasy movie in the modern cinematic landscape that ISN’T tied to a comic book, video game, or eighties cartoon is pretty much flirting with disaster at this point, is it possible that a GOOD movie managed to come out of all that strife and discord?  Let’s find out!!

Despite what the trailers may tell you, the movie is ACTUALLY about a boy named Jake (Tom Taylor) who’s waking up every morning in a cold sweat due to his recurring dream about a man in black (Matthew McConaughey) and his horrifying sciencey magical experiments on children in hopes of destroying some giant tower.  A DARK tower, if you will!  He’s drawing images of what he dreams about every day (presumably in hopes of winning an Eisner once he puts all the pieces together) which along with his less than stellar coping skills over the death of his father has made him somewhat ostracized at school and has his mother very concerned.  Too bad for them that his stories about evil wizards, rat people wearing human skins, and dead children turn out to be COMPLETELY TRUE as he finds a portal to another world where all this very odd stuff is happening.  Gee, a misunderstood creative type who gets proven right in a Stephen King story!?  WHO’D HAVE THOUGHT!?  Anyway, from there he meets up with the GOOD GUY in his graphic novel who is Roland; THE LAST GUNSLINGER (Idris Elba).  Now Roland wants to put a few right between The Man in Black’s icy blues eyes (mostly due to the whole making him THE LAST GUNSLINGER thing)and this kid with seemingly psychic powers (where have seen THAT before in a Stephen King book) might just be the key to finding the sneaky bastard once and for all!  Can these two unlikely allies manage to stop The Man in Black from his evil schemes before he destroys THE DARK TOWER and the universe along with it?  What does The Man in Black have in store for them once they find his EVIL lair?  Could Idris Elba look any more BAD ASS than he does in this movie!?

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“Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun made out of Excalibur. Which is a thing, apparently!”

I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I enjoyed the hell out of this silly movie!  I can’t quite say I LOVED it as there are some serious flaws that drag it down, but when this movie is firing on all of its goofy cylinders; it’s one of the more enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.  Like I said, I don’t know thing one about the novels so I can’t really tell you how good of an adaptation this is, though judging by the abysmally short run time for such a high concept film I can only assume this isn’t even a Cliffs Notes version but a Cliffs Notes of a Cliffs Notes which will surely perturbed some of the devoted fans of the series who will only be seeing a small and murky glimpse into a world they always dreamed of.  Still, that small glimpse you get isn’t really a BAD one; especially if you’re going into this more or less completely cold the way that I did.  It’s not for everyone and there are some downright dumbfounding problems that should have been ironed out when adapting this into the current cinematic landscape, but the film worked on a very specific wavelength between sincere larger than life myth-making and downright cheesy greatness that I couldn’t help but crack a smile every time Idris Elba fired bullets at demons and whenever Matthew McConaughey was turning the sleaze up to eleven.

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“Well alright alright alright! Who’s ready to summon Satan?”

The movie starts out incredibly strong with the first act taking place entirely within the real work and from Jake’s perspective.  Since I had no idea exactly what this series was about, I got a lot of enjoyment out of the mystery of just what Jake is seeing and if it’s even real which was an interesting dynamic to explore.  Were these images of a strange man with dark magic a true threat to the universe, or simply a manifestation of his fears?  Were the Gunslingers truly the BAD ASS warriors the movie portrayed them as in Jake’s dreams, or were they an idealistic interpretation of what a young man thinks a hero should be?  Now at some point the curtain DOES pull back and the kid with emotional issues unable to deal with the death of his father is soon proven COMPLETELY right about everything which is COINCIDENTALLY the point where the plot goes from legitimately engaging to a fantastic and hyperbolic farce (in a good way), but that really solid exploration of Jake’s character manages to carry him all the way through the movie even if he gets pushed to the background somewhat in the second two thirds.

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Oh I’m SURE this is perfectly safe! The guy knows what he’s doing!

Now from there, the movie is simultaneously an utter mess and an unbelievably fun romp as the script is barely functional in its attempt to reduce the book series down to a single NINETY MINUTE movie (how is this not at least two and a half hours!?) but is carried by some strong concepts and fantastic (if OCCASIONALLY hit or miss) direction that makes this tarnished gem of a film shine brightly.  Do we ever really know what the hell McConaughey’s deal is at any point in the movie?  No, but the character still manages to remain engaging simply through his physical performance which fleshes him out more than any of the brief exposition dumps the movie lays on us.  That’s actually a really good point in the movie’s favor.  Had the film been longer, the FIRST thing I would have done is go deeper into the lore and backstory of our key players as well as the worlds they inhabit, but given the run time it DOES have it rarely wastes time giving us what we want to see which is bad ass magic, bad ass gun-slinging, and the occasional bit of fish out of water humor once we get to the third act.  I never felt lost in this story because it’s rather simple (bad guy wants to destroy MacGuffin and needs THE CHOSEN ONE to do so), but I was still disappointed in how little we really got to dive into this mythology and all the different ideas being played with throughout.  I guess wanting more is one of the BETTER problems to have, but it’s still disappointing that what we got such a bare bones adaptation of it when going JUST a bit deeper would have made the really cool moments that much more satisfying.

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“BANG-BANG-BANG!!”

Now even though I feel that the story is gonna be too light to satisfy fans of The Dark Tower, it DOES have quite a few references if you’re familiar with Stephen King’s other work which I understand is all KIND of tied together with The Dark Tower being the nexus from which these stories branch off.  Apart from The Shining reference that’s an integral part of the plot, I managed to spot ones for IT, Children of the Corn, and 1408, though it seems like there’s plenty more Easter Eggs to be found throughout including ones to Christine, Cujo, Misery, and I THINK The Stand.  With that new IT movie coming out in a month, I’m now curious if there’s gonna be any connections there; despite the two films being made by different studios.  So was Spider-Man Homecoming, and THAT worked out just fine!  Stuff like that, and ESPECIALLY the third act trip to NYC makes me think that we’re not supposed to be taking this quite as seriously as it’s taking itself to be which is perfect for the way that I ultimately enjoyed the movie.  A sequel could probably give us the kind of movie that The Dark Tower fans really wanted, but there’s enough junk food in here from the silly King references to the well-choreographed gun fights that it stays entertaining throughout which is better than OTHER overly compressed adaptations I can name.

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If Shyamalan was behind this, then we’d have the OPPOSITE problem of these characters NEVER shutting up!

Aside from the hollow plot that was clearly hacked to the bone to fit such a short running time, the biggest problem of the movie has to be the female characters and the problematic way the movie portrays them.  They basically boil down to either angelic mother figures, one dimensional caricatures, and rather boring henchwomen; none of whom are compelling when compared to the admittedly over the top but no less engaging male characters who are constantly in the forefront.  Not only that, but the pretty much every woman with speaking role (of which there are about four) suffer some sort of abuse at the hand of Matthew McConaughey and more often than not with some degree of sexual connotation.  I get that the point is to make us LOVE TO HATE HIM even more by turning up the slime factor, but all it ends up doing is diminishing his deliciously evil persona into more a generic creeper  and an abusive prick which is far less interesting and rather uncomfortable to sit through.  All I’m saying is that he didn’t get grabby when he was fighting Idris Elba!

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I wanted Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey! Not Dazed and Confused Matthew McConaughey! Wait… now that I think about it he pretty much did the same thing in that movie too…

I can’t exactly say this is a HIGH QUALITY movie considering the issues with pacing and structure (not to mention its off-putting use of female characters), but it has a charm to it that allows me to see past its flaws and find an absurdly entertaining and delightfully bizarre masterpiece in the vein of Highlander or Escape from New York; not that this movie is comparable to them in terms of quality, but we really don’t get movies like that often enough.  Not everyone is gonna be able to get past the rough parts which is perfectly understandable and why I can’t recommend it whole heartedly.  However, if you’re in the mood for some silly over the top fun (and you’ve already seen Valerian), it might be worth checking out on the big screen.  Seriously, where the hell else will you get to see Matthew McConaughey play a bad guy THIS deliciously evil while tossing around fireballs!?  I mean, I GUESS Marvel’s gonna have to cast someone as Mephisto at some point, but still!

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