Why does Stringer Bell want to beat up David Copperfield?
This is Part 2. Part 1 is a very SPOILER-FILLED look at the book series.
So let's just get this out of the way right now: Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of/quasi-sequel to Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is not a particularly good movie.
I can't say I'm shocked by this; the early reviews have been atrocious and it's currently sitting at a not-so-comfortable 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. I also don't really blame Arcel. He's a solid filmmaker, and everything I've read about him makes me think that his heart was in the right place and that he really wanted to do the series justice.
But the movie just screams "too many cooks" from almost the very first frame. You have Sony teaming up with Media Rights Capital, who Variety reports had somewhat competing visions for the film, along with veto power over each others' input. You have Stephen King himself, who also had veto power (although, after watching the film, it's hard for me to believe he used it very much). Lost in the shuffle is Arcel, who's working from a script cobbled together out of the old Akiva Goldsman draft and a bunch of new material.
The end result is a movie that just never really clicks. All the requisite parts are there, but somehow it just stays in neutral and pretty much idles its way toward an ending.
But here's the thing. I didn't hate it. And if the 63% RT audience score is any indication, maybe fans are enjoying this thing a bit more than the critics might expect.
I'm not going to go so far as to say I liked it, and maybe this is just my low expectations and my overriding desire to see a Dark Tower movie — ANY Dark Tower movie — talking, but there's some good stuff in there, and if it does just well enough at the Box Office, there's some real narrative potential if Sony decides to keep the franchise going.
First, the good:
1) Idris Elba as Roland. When Elba was announced, some of the more racist fanboys freaked the fuck out over a black man being cast as Roland. And, to be fair, I kind of get it, at least on a superficial level. Roland is King's riff on Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" character from the Sergio Leone films, and so he's quite explicitly described in Eastwoodian terms. He's tall, pale, and chisel-featured, with striking blue eyes ("cold bombardier's eyes," as King frequently puts it).
But here's my thing: the Leone/Eastwood riff is literally the least interesting thing about Roland, and once you're past The Gunslinger it hardly figures into the character at all. He's not just some lone mercenary wandering from town to town, growling one-liners and chomping on a cigar, but rather the last in a line of gunslinging knights that once ruled a strange alien land called Gilead. Narratively speaking, there's absolutely no reason he can't be portrayed by a black man. And Elba is quite simply one of the best actors of his generation. When his name was first floated, I had maybe fifteen seconds of going "but wait, he doesn't look like Clint Eastwood" before I realized how perfect a choice he actually is. I've loved Elba since The Wire, but it was his turn on the British cop show Luther that convinced me. He's got the right combination of stoic masculinity, seething rage, and aching vulnerability.
And after finally watching the film, I just can't imagine anyone else doing Roland (as written) any sort of justice. I can't think of another actor who could take in those clunky boulders of exposition that the script keeps hurling at him and deliver them back to us with such quiet conviction and panache. He feels like Roland, moves like Roland, shoots and kills like Roland. The movie that surrounds him is more than a bit of a mess, but it was an absolute thrill to watch him in action.
His best scene is actually one of the silliest. After arriving in New York and suffering from an infection, Jake takes him to an emergency room. The doctors are, shall we say, not quite sure what to make of him. The movie plays the whole fish-out-of-water thing for laughs, but even so I was stunned at how perfectly Elba embodies the spirit of Roland in that moment. This is the slightly bemused character from The Drawing of the Three who develops a fondness for "astin" and "popkins" (aspirin and hoagies, respectively). It's probably the least consequential scene in the entire movie, but it still had me bouncing up and down in my seat with glee.
2) Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers. Taylor's been taking a bit of a drubbing from the critics, but you know what? I thought he was actually pretty good (his somewhat dodgy American accent notwithstanding). He felt like Jake to me, and I believed the growing bond between him and Roland. I would happily watch these two continue their quest if we're lucky enough to get a second movie. The script doesn't give him a lot to work with, but he pretty much holds his own against Elba, so you've gotta give him some credit. It's not a mind-blowing performance by any means, but it does the job.
3) The cinematography/production design. This doesn't look exactly like the Mid-World I pictured, but Arcel and his visual team — cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk and production designers Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl — do a commendable job of taking the spirit of King's vision and putting their own spin on it. I really liked their take on the Devar Toi, and their New York feels suitably scummy to me. The Dixie Pig has a fun "Beyond Thunderdome" feel to it (although I kind of missed the claustrophobia from the book version), and the Mani village (or is it the Calla? Unclear) felt like a proper representation of a world that has "moved on."
The bummer is that I just don't think they were allowed to go as far as they wanted to. The lighting gets a little muddy at times, and a part of me wonders if that wasn't an intentional choice to cover some things up. You can feel the constraints of the minimal budget, not in what appears on screen but what doesn't. More on that in a minute.
4) The easter eggs. I mean, who doesn't love a good easter egg? Eagle-eyed King fans will see nods to It, The Shining, Christine, Cujo, and more. And there's a nice little nugget right in the last shot (I didn't notice it until my friend elbowed me and pointed it out). Allusions and references to other works does not a good movie make, but I did have fun with them.
5) The gun fights. There aren't enough of them, but the two we get is pretty great. We first really see Roland in action when the Man in Black's minions attack the Mani village (the trailer showcased most of this), but it's the penultimate shootout with all the Taheen in the Dixie Pig that had me grinning ear-to-ear. I can't stress enough how long I've been waiting to see Roland take care of business with those ancient sandalwood-grip revolvers of his — and even in an overall mediocre movie like this, it was just glorious to watch. The movie pisses that all away with the showdown between Roland and the Man in Black, but I'll take what I can get.
Okay, now on to what's bad:
1) McConaughey. I mean, hoo boy. What to say about this performance. There's not a goddamned thing that works about it. The character of the Man in Black was just misconceived at every level. Why the decision to put him in a 70s leisure suit and give him a waxed chest and spiky Billy Idol hair? Why is he constantly referring to his "magicks?" When he breaks into Jake Chamber's home and decides to grill up some chicken, why does he feel the need to put on an apron? Those aren't things you can blame Matthew McConaughey for, but rather than find a way into the character he just leans right into the script's rank absurdity.
At least since the McConaissance we all know that Matthew McConaughey is a really good actor. And he should have been great in this role. Anyone who knows the Man in Black's true identity and who watched the first season of True Detective would agree. But Walter O'Dim is a creature of shadows, and watching McConaughey peacock and strut his way through this performance is just painful. To be fair, the dialogue he's given is next-level terrible, but whereas Elba was able to mostly make it work, McConaughey never rises above laughable. His Walter is like a five-way love child between Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman, McConaughey's own Wooderson, John Holmes, the Night at the Roxbury guys, and either Siegfried or Roy. He pretty much single-handedly ruins the final confrontation with all his prancing and swishing about, making the whole thing feel less like an action climax and more like a second rate magician trying to channel David Copperfield during his Saturday matinee in Reno.
2) The script. This thing is a fucking disaster, and it's really to Arcel's and Elba's credit that the movie works as well as it does. Originally penned by Akiva Goldsman, one of my least favorite screenwriters, the final script is just a weird Frankenstein's monster of bad dialogue, weird flashbacks, and incomprehensible pacing. It's pretty clear that Sony never really believed in this property, because rather than actually develop any idea for more than thirty seconds they just keep hurling in elements from all seven books in the vain hope that fans would be satisfied. Nothing really lands with any emotional weight, because we don't get to spend enough time with anything to figure out what's important. The geography (or lack thereof) of Mid-World is completely opaque. We're not there long enough to get any sense of place.
I'm sorry, but Mid-World is one of the richest, weirdest, most fascinating fantasy landscapes ever created. So why is most of the movie set in New York?
One word: budget.
3) The CGI. Thankfully, there's not actually all that much of it, but what's there is pretty dodgy. The movie is at its best visually when it leans on its practical locations, production designers, and cinematographer. When it does employ CGI, it quickly starts looking like one of the less-good episodes of Sliders. The Doorway Demon near the beginning is a joke. But the worst is some sort of lizard that tries to eat Jake. It's supposed to be scary, but it kind of reminded me of the baby monsters from the 1998 Godzilla.
4) Every time someone talks about Jake having "the shine." I mean, Jesus. We get it already.
I had mostly resigned myself to a bad adaptation of The Dark Tower, but what's frustrating about this film is that you can see the good film that it wanted to be peeking out from between the curtains. Arcel had a vision, but it's clear that Sony and MRC just never trusted him. This movie needed another half hour and a solid dialogue polish to even begin to work. It's obvious as you watch it that a lot of connective tissue ended up on the cutting-room floor. Why, I can only guess — Sony test-screened the film with ominous results, and then insisted that Arcel get the thing down to 90 minutes. I hope there's an extended DVD version just waiting to be released in a few months.
What's good about The Dark Tower is actually quite good, and most of that can be credited to Arcel and Elba... but what's bad is legitimately terrible. The whole thing kind of evens out to a solid meh.
Still, I hold onto some hope. This first film is a bit of a shaky foundation for a franchise, but I think it's solid enough to build upon if they want to. Last I read, the producers are still committed to the Wizard and Glass prequel series. If this movie does just well enough and then the show catches fire (the source material is so good that they'd have to actively work to fuck it up), we might yet see a continuation of Roland's quest. I'm onboard, as long as they keep Elba involved (and assuming they bring in Aaron Paul to play Eddie Dean, which is something the fans have been screaming for for years).
As far as I'm concerned Elba is Roland, and I'm not interested in anyone else's take on the character.