In "The Dark Tower," Matthew McConaughey plays a figure known as the Man in Black, who turns out to be not a famed country-western singer but an extremely evil sorcerer. Sporting a dark coat, an open-necked shirt and an air of louche post-McConnaissance decadence, the Man in Black stalks through the movie like a Vegas lounge lizard, ordering the people around him to do things like "burn," "stop breathing" and "kill each other." They almost always comply.
The one guy who doesn't is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba, looking faintly bored), the last living descendant of an ancient lineage of pistol-packing warriors known as Gunslingers. Mysteriously immune to what the Man in Black calls his "magics," Roland is the only warrior who can stop this stylish archvillain from destroying the fabled Dark Tower and unleashing chaos across the multiverse.
Weirdly enough, after emerging from the thoroughly magics-free experience that is "The Dark Tower," I found myself thinking the multiverse could actually use a bit more chaos, which is certainly saying something these days. Whatever its problems, its trim, 95-minute tale of dimension-hopping warriors is hardly the impenetrable, undisciplined mess we might have expected after industry reports of disastrous test screenings and last-minute reshoots. In its current state, "The Dark Tower" doesn't seem to have been conceived with any of the ambition and grandeur needed to qualify as a catastrophe of that magnitude. From start to finish, the movie exudes a stiff, joyless coherence.
This is as fine a place as any to announce that I haven't read a word of Stephen King's massive, multi-threaded "Dark Tower" fantasy-novel octalogy, though I doubt even a thoroughgoing familiarity with the material would make a difference. In feeding that bestselling property through the dull-edged cheese grater of Hollywood franchise cinema, the Danish writer-director Nikolaj Arcel ("A Royal Affair") and his fellow screenwriters have followed through with their stated intent to deliver not a straightforward adaptation but, rather, a riffy, stand-alone sequel of sorts. (A parallel "Dark Tower" television series featuring many of the same actors, including Elba, is currently in the works.)
Practically speaking, what viewers are left with is a flat, workmanlike compendium of apocalyptic portents, bloodless killings and highly derivative sci-fi-fantasy-western images. J.R.R. Tolkien was reportedly a key influence on King's novels, which may explain why the movie's version of the Dark Tower looks like an Eye of Sauron with self-esteem issues. The inferiority complex is understandable: We're informed at the outset, after all, that the tower can be destroyed by "the mind of a child." To that end, the Man in Black and his masked minions have been abducting kids left and right, then using a sinister brain-drain machine to chip away at the Dark Tower from afar.
The one child whose mind is strong enough to topple the tower completely is a 14-year-old New Yorker named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), whose tremendous psychic gifts — shades of "The Shining" — are apparent in his persistent nightmares and eerie drawings of Roland and the Man in Black. Running away from his concerned mom (Katheryn Winnick) and jerky stepdad (Nicholas Pauling), Jake is promptly whisked away from Earth (or Keystone Earth, as it's known in multiverse terms) through a network of interdimensional portals, only to land on a desolate planet whose rugged landscapes might put you in a classic-western state of mind even before Elba's Gunslinger shows up.
There's not much more to the plot. Dennis Haysbert turns up briefly and smiles his benevolent smile as Roland's father, Steven Deschain. The Man in Black tracks and torments Roland and Jake from one hideaway to the next, at times sacrificing expedience in order to kill as many people as possible. Toward the end, Roland initiates Jake into the mysteries of the Gunslinger code, which involves amassing a lot of bullets but also reciting some high-minded mumbo-jumbo about the importance of transcending the physical weapon.
"I kill with my heart," Roland declares, a dubious line that some might well interpret as carrying a faint echo of "guns don't kill people" rhetoric. Which is not to say that "The Dark Tower" is any more or less firearm-obsessed than the average PG-13-rated action flick, or that there's anything particularly disturbing about the dull shootouts that bring the movie to its exceedingly unimaginative close. The mind of a child could have done better.
'The Dark Tower'
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release