Idris Elba plays the mystical gunslinger Roland Deschain in The Dark Tower. It should be the ripest of ripe blockbuster roles, given how much revenge, brooding, and wearing of a leather duster it entails. The duster is key, with plenty of swirl to it for all the times Roland ends up whipping around to shoot something, on one occasion reloading by catching a chamber full of bullets in midair. It's dramatic, but not as dramatic as the scene in which he takes out a baddie at a distance without turning his head, just sensing the shot with his powers. As the code Roland recites goes, you kill with your heart — especially when it looks cool.
Roland is the central character of the eight-book Stephen King series on which The Dark Tower is based, a sprawling Western-fantasy-science-fiction-horror mashup that various bigwigs (including J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard) have been trying to adapt for the screen for a decade. The movie that finally emerged from that development morass — one directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the script with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen — instead funnels its story through 11-year-old Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled boy who lives in Manhattan, but who's been dreaming about Roland and the world of magic and demons from which he comes. It's a confounding decision on many levels — the most obvious of which is that when you have Elba playing some cowboy version of an Arthurian knight, why in the multiverse would you shift focus to an annoying kid?
Elba can't seem to catch a break. The English actor has been a famous name for so long that it's easy to forget how few great parts he's actually gotten. Post–Stringer Bell on The Wire, he's rattled around in a bunch of supporting gigs, some more memorable than others — Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; villains in The Losers, Beasts of No Nation, No Good Deed, and Star Trek Beyond; some voiceover work. The greatest offense of Prometheus is that Elba and Charlize Theron have hate sex and it happens offscreen. He was also Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a great performance in a middling awards bait biopic. TV's been better, from Showtime's Guerrilla miniseries to BBC's crime drama Luther, a series that's not as fresh as it used to be, but which seems to keep chugging along because the title character remains one of the most interesting Elba's gotten to play. Elba's most famous film role is, in some ways, the one he's always suggested for but hasn't been offered — that of James Bond.
Elba has been a movie star in waiting for years. The Dark Tower is a lame-duck adaptation destined to enrage book fans and bewilder everyone else, but at least it seemed poised to give the actor a prime spotlight. The fact that Elba gets consigned to being a surly sidekick and surrogate father figure as much as he is an action hero suggests that Hollywood still doesn't know what to do with him. As villainous wizard Walter, Matthew McConaughey offers up what's basically a more evil version of whatever he's doing in those Lincoln car commercials, swanning around in a duster of his own — black, draped over a barely buttoned black shirt. Roland is just as underwritten, but Elba takes the opportunity to bring soulfulness to his barely sketched-out path to redemption — and when that fails, he still manages to be funny.
Those are, strangely, the best parts of The Dark Tower — when, having failed to deliver the promised cool, the film opts for bits of fish-out-of-water business, leveraging the larger-than-life Roland again in present-day New York. As Roland, Elba squints at TV commercials, reveals himself to be terrible at bluffing, and pays an emergency room doctor with what looks like a gold coin before stalking out, bellowing, "Bring my guns!" Elba sells it with the timing and by playing Roland painfully straight, and in those moments, you can see the movie The Dark Tower could have been — probably still a letdown for devotees of King's series, but at least something fun. Elba alone can't make The Dark Tower worth watching. But he can make the case, yet again, that he deserves better material than this.