A contentious adaptation
The Dark Tower is not a perfect movie, but it was probably never going to be. Stephen King's books are basically impossible to adapt--not like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which the author famously (although perhaps a bit apocryphally) believed to be too large in scope. The Dark Tower books would be hard to adapt because, in retrospect, they're kind of all over the place.
I won't try to convince anyone that the books they love are bad. But King wrote this series over several decades, changing tone, style, and even crucial, concrete details in the novels' setting and plot as he went. He wrote himself into the story as a character who had to be saved so that he could keep writing it (a plot point King has requested never make it to the big screen). He even went full George Lucas at one point, significantly altering and adding nearly 40 pages to the first book, The Gunslinger.
So. The Dark Tower the movie is something else entirely, a reinterpreted sort of-sequel that, should it continue beyond this first film, will allegedly portray Roland Deschain's final time 'round the merry-go-round.
Roland is the last Gunslinger, a fallen order of knights dressed like cowboys. He's the best bits of King Arthur and John Wayne but also extremely tired and sad from being ancient and losing all his battles. Idris Elba, incredibly talented actor that he is, captures this nuanced and badass character perfectly. One of the movie's big shames is that you don't get to see more of him, as-- unlike the books--The Dark Tower is basically told from Jake Chambers' perspective.
Jake is a boy from New York City who, in the movie, seeks Roland out based on a series of lucid, haunting dreams. The Dark Tower's first act is all Jake, and luckily, Tom Taylor is a pretty good actor. He really sells being a troubled kid without coming off as whiny or annoying. It makes you root for him.
Jake, it turns out, possesses some vaguely defined power--in this version called "shine," yes, like The Shining--that makes him an ideal candidate for the machinations of a powerful sorcerer named Walter, more often referred to as The Man in Black. Walter is working to destroy the dark tower, thereby destroying the universe, while Roland works to stop him. Jake, meanwhile, is along for the ride, mostly just trying to prove he's not crazy--that his visions are of something real, and that the ever more frequent "earthquakes" plaguing New York are more than simple geographic phenomena.
The dynamic between Roland and Jake is central, and the two actors have surprisingly good chemistry. Their whole pseudo father-son bond is weirdly touching, in a Spielbergian sort of way, and much of the movie's significant humor comes from Roland's interactions with normal people in Jake's world, like when he tells people he's from "here, on Keystone Earth." Oh, of course, sure.
Matthew McConaughey is super-villainous as The Man In Black, killing lots and lots of people, often by simply commanding them to "stop breathing." He's weirdly reserved while he does it. It's an unsettling performance unfortunately hampered by two things: 1) The weird wig he seems to be wearing in some scenes, which is obvious and super distracting, and 2) some of the truly awful dialogue he's saddled with. "His shine is pure," is pretty bad, but just wait until you hear him talk about his "magicks."
The Dark Tower is strangely game-like in more than one scene, and usually not to its benefit. Both large action scenes, for example, are populated mainly by throwaway foes that snarl cheesily or run straight toward Roland as if they exist for no purpose other than to let the Gunslinger blow them away. At one point he picks up a propane tank, hurls it at a group of enemies, and plants a single slug to set off a large explosion, one of the most video gamey moves there is.
At other times these scenes come off like one of those action movies that came out in the years immediately following The Matrix--the ones that had no business imitating that movie's "bullet time" and malleable physics but tried to anyway. The Dark Tower's gunplay is best when it's grounded in reality; Elba clearly put a lot of work into becoming fluid with those clunky hand cannons, and it shows--when the movie lets him do his thing. One particularly affecting scene late in the film has Roland hand Jake one of his guns, and they together recite the Gunslinger's oath while taking aim. The Dark Tower's talented cast is its greatest strength.
This adaptation takes what it wants from the source material and leaves the rest on the page. That may have some fans choking on their graf, but it's not the movie's biggest flaw. That would be its 95-minute running time. There's nothing wrong with a movie that can get to its point quickly, but The Dark Tower could have really used another 20 minutes or so, partially to flesh out some of its characters a little more--but mainly at the end. The Dark Tower definitely leaves threads that sequels could pick up, but its ending also feels abrupt and undercooked, especially for fans upset that the first book's subtle climax has been transformed into an epic battle of guns and sorcery.
The Dark Tower is probably not the adaptation hardcore fans were hoping for, but it's also not a terrible movie. It takes plenty of liberties with the source material, some for the better, and others the worse. It could have taken more time to explain why The Man In Black wants to destroy the universe, or exactly what being a Gunslinger once meant. But for every cringey line of dialogue, there's another that might make you laugh or give you chills, and for all the cheesy action, there's some really impressive stuff, too. If nothing else, there's no such thing as too much Idris Elba.