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Armed, but not very dangerous
"THE Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed." Those were Stephen King's opening words for The Dark Tower. The American pulp horror author was 22. Never did he expect the novel to expand into eight, published between 1982 and 2012.
The Dark Tower series is his magnum opus. It is the nexus of his King-dom, with its interconnected stories that span hundreds of years across a magical multi-verse referencing his complete bibliography and vice versa. An antagonist resurfaces in The Stand; the telepathic boy Danny Torrance from The Shining is mentioned. King himself becomes a character in the later volumes.
Yet, even as The Stand and The Shining - along with dozens more King bestsellers - were turned into a Hollywood sub-genre, King's expansive, staggeringly complex 4,254-page epic continued to dumbfound filmmakers no less experienced than JJ Abrams and Ron Howard.
The Sony Pictures production has been a decade in the making and is finally being realised by Danish director Nikolaj Arcel of the 2013 Academy Award best foreign film entry A Royal Affair.
The Dark Tower is Arcel's English-language debut, based on a screenplay he co-created by combining the first book, The Gunslinger, and the third, The Waste Lands, with elements from the last.
This Dark Tower of the title is a mystical edifice holding the universe together.
The magnetic Idris Elba in his full imposing presence is the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, the lone surviving member of an ancient knightly order protecting the Tower.
A sleekly sinister Matthew McConaughey is his nemesis the Man in Black aka Walter O'Dim, a sorcerer the Gunslinger must prevent from toppling the Tower and bringing chaos.
Living in New York City with his mum (Katheryn Winnick) and stepdad (Nicholas Pauling) is Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a 14-year-old meanwhile plagued by visions of the Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Jake is another of King's psychic child protagonists. People think he is crazy until he falls via a portal into the Alternate reality Mid-World, smack into the Gunslinger's and Man in Black's eternal standoff with the fate of the worlds at stake.
The intra-dimensional action fantasy horror's part JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, part American Wild West and part Arthurian legend has Jake confront scary thrills. Demons disguised as humans chase him even in his everyday existence, and McConaughey, looking like a young Christopher Walken, has never been this frightening since losing all that weight for Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
The adventure nonetheless stays PG-13 teen-friendly, as experienced through Jake. A prologue shows the Man in Black killing the Gunslinger's father; the main emotional arc is Jake's deepening connection with the Gunslinger, guiding the embittered hero past his vengefulness back to his larger quest.
Loyalists of King's doorstop may reasonably be underwhelmed. Is that it?
Well, yes. This abridgement just 95 minutes long is intended to introduce a television serial. Regardless, it is on its own likeable enough for being a relief from today's bloated blockbusters, a brisk, unpretentious diversion featuring two strong leads in an age-old battle of good versus evil.