The Dark Tower Beckons You

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Dark Tower series. It’s such a great first sentence. It pulls you in and makes you wonder who these people are, and why one is chasing the other. It’s such an evocative sentence that King wrote eight books from it.

For a while, it looked like the man in black fled across the desert, and Hollywood followed. This is because a film adaptation of the Dark Tower saga has been in the works for years, with multiple directors and stars attached. The version that ended up being made was directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, and stars Idris Elba as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black.
I’ve only read two of the eight Dark Tower books, so I’m no expert, but I have a passing familiarity with the series. King loves to fill his books with references to his other books, and his multi-dimensional Dark Tower series encompasses pretty much all of them. Fittingly, the film is full of references to other Stephen King works. I caught references to The Shining, Misery, It, Christine, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, and Mr. Mercedes. There were probably some that I missed, too.

Image: Sony

The film has had a long road to cinemas. There was some controversy regarding the casting of Elba as the gunslinger, since Elba is black and in the books the character is white. But King himself has stated he doesn’t care if the character is portrayed as black or white, and Elba is a good enough actor that his casting never bothered me. Also, there was the announcement that the film would be a sequel of sorts to the books, which sounded…odd. But then, how else are you supposed to adapt eight richly-detailed books that span several thousand pages into a film? Some liberties have to be taken, although adapting such a complex and beloved book series is always a risky proposition.

And the results in this case are mixed. The film got terrible reviews and scored a modest box-office opening. It’s not a terrible movie, but it could have been a hell of a lot better.

The movie’s audience surrogate character is 11-year old Jake Chambers, who has been having vivid dreams about a man in black attempting to destroy a tower and bring about the end of the world, and a lone gunslinger who seeks to stop him. The world has been suffering from a string of severe earthquakes, and Jake can’t help feeling that the earthquakes and his dreams are somehow related.

Long story short: he’s right. I try to avoid spoilers for brand new films, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Jake ends up traveling through a portal into another world, where he meets Roland, the gunslinger he had seen in his dreams. From Roland, Jake learns about the Dark Tower, which stands at the center point of the universe. The man in black wants to destroy the tower, the destruction of which would allow monsters from other dimensions to invade and destroy us. Or…something like that.

The movie’s main problem is that it feels too conventional. The setting of the books is a dreamlike sci-fi/western that’s kind of like a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood. The world(s) of the film don’t feel nearly as unique. The book’s protagonist is an interdimensional cowboy/knight who wields revolvers forged from the steel of Excalibur. That’s probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written, but the movie doesn’t live up to the coolness and weirdness of the books, instead feeling like a somewhat generic sci-fi thriller.

Image: Sony

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since the movie is entertaining enough, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t have more personality. There are some fun, exciting action sequences (Roland can do some badass things with those revolvers) but the plot feels rushed and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Part of this is due to the surprisingly brief 95-minute running time of the film. The advantage of the short running time is that there is no fat: everything in the movie has a point. The disadvantage is that the characters and conflicts aren’t given enough time to breathe. Roland and the man in black are supposed to be eternal enemies, but the movie gives all of one scene to establish their antagonism, so their enmity doesn’t register as strongly as it should.

But Elba and McConaughey are both very good. In my post about Atomic Blonde I talked about my theory of coolness, which is that coolness speaks for itself. Both Elba and McConaughey are perfect examples of that. They are cool as hell, and so are their characters in this film. Elba is a grumpy badass with a heart of gold, while McConaughey seems to relish playing an evil multidimensional sorcerer who kills people simply by telling them to stop breathing. How would it not be fun to play those characters? The young actor who plays Jake is named Tom Taylor, I believe making his big-screen debut. He’s very good, and there are some genuinely sweet and often funny interactions between Jake and Roland. There are also some funny fish-out-of-water moments when Jake brings Roland into our world, which reminded me of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman.

You’ll probably hear a lot about how this movie is terrible and it ruins the legacy of King’s books and it sucks and it’s the worst adaptation ever and so on and so forth. I think that kind of hyperbolic nonsense is a load of hogwash. The movie isn’t an abomination. It has entertaining sequences and performances, but the direction is lackluster and the truncated plot can’t help but feel rushed. Its biggest sin is that it takes the surreal, dreamlike quality of King’s novels and turns them into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. It’s an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes, but it doesn’t have much staying power. A prequel TV series in reportedly in the works, so we may not have seen the last of this series on the screen. Given the sprawling nature of the story, it seems like a better fit for TV anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Coming up next is…well, I’m not sure. I was going to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s not playing near me so I’m going to have to put that on hold. I’ve got some other ideas I’ve been kicking around, so I’ll probably go with one of those. Tune in next week to find out which one I picked.

GIRL POWER: Atomic Blonde

When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she’s submerged in a bathtub full of ice water. As she emerges, she extracts a couple of ice cubes and deposits them in a glass, which she then fills with vodka.

It’s a badass introduction for a woman with ice in her veins. Lorraine is played by Charlize Theron, and she is effortlessly cool. Her coolness is immediately apparent. The movie she stars in is Atomic Blonde, and it doesn’t need to have people talking about how cool Lorraine is, her coolness speaks for itself. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the film.

Image: Focus Features

I have a theory about coolness. I call it, creatively, Colin’s Coolness Theory. I am open to suggestions for better names. The main principle of CCT is that coolness speaks for itself. Everyone knows that some loudmouth going on about how cool he is is not actually cool. If you have to tell people how cool you are, then you are in fact uncool.

Atomic Blonde doesn’t tell the viewer how cool its protagonist is, because it doesn’t have to. But the rest of the movie tries too hard to live up to Lorraine’s coolness, and it can’t quite do it. The movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran stuntman who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to direct John Wick Chapter 2, while Leitch decided to make Atomic Blonde his first solo directorial feature. Unfortunately, while John Wick 2 is one of my favorite movies so far this year, Atomic Blonde is a much more mixed bag.

The main problem I have with Leitch’s film is that it is overly stylized. It’s full of neon lights and pounding 80’s music, heavy on the bass, percussion and synthesizer. I don’t have much of an ear for this kind of music, and it all started to sound the same to me. I get that the music is meant to set the mood, but unlike other music-heavy films like Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Leitch’s use of the music in Atomic Blonde doesn’t resonate, it gets repetitive.

Let’s talk about the story. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy thriller that takes place in Berlin in the late 80’s, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. This setting has made for great spy fiction in the past, but Atomic Blonde’s storytelling is lacking. Lorraine is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a British agent, who was also in possession of a list revealing the identities of every undercover operative in Berlin. This information could be devastating if the Russians get hold of it, and Lorraine is ordered to find the list, at all costs. There is also a Soviet defector code-named Spyglass, who claims to have memorized the entire list. Lorraine is also ordered to extract him. On top of all this, Lorraine also has to track down the man they suspect of killing the British agent, and find and eliminate a double agent code-named Satchel who has been feeding the Soviets intelligence for years. Lorraine’s got her work cut out for her.

She is put in contact with David Percival, the head of station in Berlin. Percival has been in Berlin for a long time, and has gone native, meaning that his superiors no longer trust him. He seems to enjoy being in Berlin a bit too much. His shiftiness is apparent from the moment we first meet him. Percival is played by James McAvoy, who is a great actor. His character here is poorly written however, and it is obvious that he is Up To No Good. The viewer doesn’t trust him, and neither does Lorraine.

As well she shouldn’t, because Percival is an asshole. I like James McAvoy a lot, but his character here is so unpleasant I hated him immediately. He is an abrasive, sleazy, duplicitous bastard who smokes and swears constantly. You might argue that the viewer is not supposed to like Percival, and you’d be right. But the movie goes too far in depicting him as a corrupt, amoral douchebag. It’s completely obvious that he’s bent, and some of the suspense is taken away by his almost-comically nefarious behavior. The plot gets so convoluted, and piles on betrayal after betrayal, that by the end it’s hard to care about any of it.

The movie’s cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella, who was the best thing about this year’s Mummy movie. Here, she plays a young French intelligence operative named Delphine, and when she meets Lorraine…well, let’s just say that sparks fly. It’s a great cast, but it’s Charlize Theron’s movie, and she owns every frame of it.

Image: Focus Features

For all the movie’s many flaws, Lorraine is one of my favorite new movie characters of the year, and Theron is magnetic. She is a stone-cold badass, and Theron proves herself to be completely convincing as an unstoppable action hero. I’m not forgetting about Mad Max: Fury Road, because she was great in that movie too, but in Atomic Blonde her role is much more physical. The action scenes in Mad Max are largely vehicle-based, whereas in Atomic Blonde it’s all up close and personal.

David Leitch’s storytelling skills could use some work, but his skill as a director of action sequences is considerable. Atomic Blonde has one of the best action sequences of the year, a brutal, close-quarters brawl that probably lasts around ten minutes and is filmed to appear as one continuous camera shot. It begins in a stairwell and goes into and out of several rooms, before going back outside and ending in a car chase. It’s fantastic, and Theron kicks ass. The movie doesn’t hesitate to show Lorraine getting her ass kicked as well. She gives better than she gets (since by the end she’s alive and her opponents are not) but she takes a lot of punishment in the process.

By the end of the epic battle, she’s coughing and gasping and limping, her face is bruised and cut, her eyes are bloodshot and streaks of red highlight her hair. This movie gets rough, and it captures how exhausting it would be to fight like that for an extended period of time. When it’s over, Lorraine can barely walk. The movie also features the most persistent henchman of the year. This freaking guy gets stabbed in the face with a car key and just will not quit. He keeps showing up when you think that, surely, there’s no way he could get up from that.

Image: Focus Features

Atomic Blonde is a deeply flawed film, but it’s one I will watch again in the future. Maybe the plot will make more sense to me on a second go-around, since it was pretty baffling the first time through. Despite the movie’s issues with plot and characters, the action sequences are top-notch and Charlize Theron’s lead performance is terrific. There’s a good movie lurking in here somewhere, and if David Leitch can tone down the stylization and get a better handle on the storytelling, he could be a great director. Atomic Blonde doesn’t live up to all of its promise, but it doesn’t completely squander it either, and I do hope that Theron gets to make more action movies, because she’s great at it.

Coming up next, it’s the long-awaited film adaptation of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy series. It stars two of my favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, so hopefully it’ll be good. Tune in next week to find out.