DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
HONOR AMONG THIEVES
PG-13, 134 mins.
2023, PG-13, 134 mins.
Chris Pine as Edgin Darvis / Michelle Rodriguez as Holga Kilgore / Regé-Jean Page as Xenk Yendar / Justice Smith as Simon Aumar / Sophia Lillis as Doric / Hugh Grant as Forge Fitzwilliam / Jason Wong as Dralas / Daisy Head as Sofina the Red WizardDirected by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein / Written by Daley, Goldstein and Michael Gilionk
I'm old enough to remember playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS when the Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created tabletop role playing game was still in its relative infancy back in the early 80s.
It's pretty amazing to see how the game has evolved and attracted new generations of players in its near fifty-year history. One of its cornerstones (in its various forms) is players creating and controlling their own characters and their respective destinies, not to mention that individual campaigns were further built upon by squads using their imaginations and sense of teamwork to overcome any foe or obstacle thrown in their paths. As a game system, no one D&D campaign was the same, which stemmed out of just how fluid and malleable it could be for certain types of players from all walks of life.
It's kind of staggering to consider that - with Hollywood's ongoing desire to mine from just about every intellectual property - only one major studio adaptation of the game has ever been attempted, which, unfortunately enough, was the unfathomably awful 2000 offering. It came nearly twenty years after a fairly decent 1983 Saturday morning cartoon that seemed to do a better job of having a basic understanding of the core features and appeal of the game. Now, coming 23 years after the first attempt by director Courtney Solomon comes DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES, which boasts the unlikely creative team of terribly underrated and hysterical GAME NIGHT (Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are the last people I would probably think of to helm a new lavish budgeted and epically staged fantasy film). To say that this new D&D film is several times better than what we got in 2000 may not entirely be saying much, but it largely succeeds based on (a) its sheer scope and scale, (b) an exceptionally attuned ensemble cast that displays genuine chemistry together, (c) a mostly clever fusing of action and comedy, and (d) how well it understands the underlining appeal of the original tabletop game that inspired it. In short, this film really has no business being as fun and enjoyable as it is in the final product.
An exceptionally well cast Chris Pine plays Edgin, an arrogant lute-playing bard who tries to make what he can of his life with his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), after his wife is murdered in the realm of Neverwinter (okay, not the most light hearted of starts). His squad is comprised of a barbarian named Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) and a sorcerer (at least in the making) named Simon (Justice Smith), and they're tasked with securing a special resurrection tablet, which goes horribly afoul and leads to Edgin and Holga being sent to the slammer for two years. The abandoned Kira is taken in by the team's ally in Forge (Hugh Grant), and because this character is played by Hugh Grant (and he has made a late career resurgence in playing two-faced a-holes) then you just know that Forge is being set up to be a double-crossing baddie with impure motives. When Edgin and Holga make a daring escape out of their prison, they discover Forge's nefarious alliance with a powerful Red Wizard named Sofina (Daisy Head) and is trying to become the ruler of Neverwinter. Even worse, Edgin's once loving daughter in Kira has been brainwashed into thinking that Forge is good and noble while her dad is a petty and untrustworthy thief. Desperate to reclaim his daughter, clear his name, and stop Forge, Edgin decides to re-form his team with Holga and Simon, but this time gains a new ally in the shape-shifting druid named Doric (IT's Sophia Lillis). Once together, they all take it upon themselves to go on a new quest to find that illusive tablet, bring down Forge and his wizard second in command, and restore peace to Neverwinter.
One of the things that's abundantly clear with
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES is that Daley and Goldstein
are trying to make a much more eye-popping visual spectacle than what we
got well before, and they seem to have an ample budget to see their vision
through to mostly successful fruition. Their film lays waste to the
2000 installment (which was replete with middling to awful CGI throughout
and a B-grade vibe throughout) in the way that it contains some splendid
production design and art direction, not to mention that advances in VFX
over the last few decades has allowed the litany of strange and exotic
monsters (that are so deeply entrenched in the lore of the role playing
game) can be more fully and authentically realized. It should be
noted, though, that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES owns up to
its inherent promises to deliver blockbuster visuals and set pieces while
simultaneously appeasing fans of the role-playing game and making this
world feel accessible to average filmgoers. That's not to say that
die-hard D&D players will be hopelessly left in the dark (this film is
littered with cool Easter Eggs to locations, creatures, character classes,
and so forth that have become the stuff of role-playing legend), but Daley
and Goldstein are making concentrated attempts to respect their source
material, but not take itself as serious as a heart attack either. Too
solemn and the film would have been a burdensome slog to sit through,
whereas too silly and it would have been overbearing. The directors
find a difficult sweet spot between both hemispheres, and for the most
part it works.
takeaway from my screening of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES
was that I found myself admiring what the cast brought to the table here
more than the wondrous sights that this universe had to offer me.
Daley and Goldstein understand the value of populating their film
with solid stars that seem to be bringing their A-games, with Pine in
particular oozing palpable star power and swagger in massive dosages here.
Yes, he has played multiple interactions of this same kind of
character class before (the confident and mischievous hero), but he pulls
it off so well that it's hard to find fault with what he does here.
He's well paired with Rodriguez's barbarian brute who - in a clever
bit of role reversal - is essentially the gallant warrior and muscle of
the group that frequently has to rescue Edgin through the film (even
better is that Holga and Edgin are not a romantic item in the story, but
instead a platonic duo, which is refreshing).
And stealing the show - as he often does - is the delightfully
slimy Hugh Grant as his foppish, but purely evil Forge, who would probably
betray his own mother if it meant securing fame and power in Neverwinter.
Thankfully, Grant never overplays his villain for pure camp value,
despite having what's
clearly an overtly comedic role here.
But, man oh man, is Forge an unhinged egomaniac.
I mean, he even has a hot air balloon with his mug plastered all
It doesn't get smugger than that.
There's also ample visual innovation alongside many scenes of side-splitting hilarity. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES is not without ambition, especially during one bravura chase sequence involving the druid shapeshifting into multiple animals to elude her attackers in a long take (she morphs from a bug to a mouse to a hawk to a deer and finally to a cat...pretty cool, to say the least). There's also a fairly exhilarating sequence in, yes, a dungeon that has the heroes fighting - you betcha! - a massive dragon that seems to be chronically obese. One moment in particular is among the funniest that I've seen in any film as of late. Edgin is tasked to interrogate magically reanimated corpses that can only answer five questions before collapsing back down dead. "Were you killed in the Battle of Evermore?" he asks one stiff, to which he replies "Yes." Edgin accidentally asks, "I get four more questions, right?" The dead body answers, "Yes." A flustered Edgin retorts, "No, that wasn't my question! Did that count as one?" "Yes," replies the rotted body again. Edgin then pleads "Only answer why I talk directly to you, okay?" Predictably and hysterically, the corpse replies, yet again, "Yes." Soon after, when Edgin gets the right information out of another dead body and walks away, he forgets to ask one last question to put him back to death and out of his misery, so he gives him an easy one. "What's two plus two?" Confused, the zombie confesses "I'm bad at math." Monty Python would have been proud.
Of the few things that bothered me about DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES, one would definitely be Forge's Red Wizard companion, who is not the most well developed of the villains. That, and sometimes the overall geography of the story is hazy and ill defined. I had to Google search afterwards that this film is based on the Forgotten Realms map, which is fine, but in terms of visually relating how all of the locations correspond to one another, the film kind of falters (it literally could have used an expositional map, like in THE LORD OF THE RINGS). Any maybe - just maybe - DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES gets sometimes too bogged down in its own ribaldry to the point that it takes away from the more powerful moments and dramatic crescendos. Added to that is the fact that Daley and Goldstein let their film go on about 10-15 minutes too long, which leads to the final stretches feeling more endurance testing than they should (comedy requires momentum and pacing, which wanes in this film's third overly busy act).
However and on the whole, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
HONOR AMONG THIEVES is a surprisingly spirited good time, and one that
wipes the awful taste of the wrongheaded 2000 iteration out of filmgoers'
mouths and delivers its fusion of action, comedy, and otherworldly
fantasy. Lastly, Daley and Goldstein harness a loose,
improvisational feel to the proceedings here and ask audiences to become
active participants in the story versus just passively watching it. It's
hard to translate the vibe of role-playing games to the silver screen, but
I think the makers, more or less, capture it here. DUNGEONS &
DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES rolls the D20 dice with poise early on and
later emerges with a high number of hit points to make it to the end of
its game alive and well and ready for the next campaign. And
speaking of sequels, I would legitimately be eager to see one after this,
which is something I can't say consistently with all would-be franchise
starters these days.