Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Tabletop RPGs and I; we just don’t get along. I guess I just grew up with video games that integrated the mechanics of RPGs in a way that didn’t require math or looking up obscure text in a dictionary-sized player’s manual, and the few experiences I’ve had with them were rocky at best. Still, there’s no denying that Dungeons & Dragons is second only to Tolkien as far as influence in the fantasy genre, and while the last attempt at a film adaptation didn’t fare too well, there are enough unique ideas and creative settings for a truly great movie to base itself around. Does this latest attempt at bringing the tabletop game to life leave us with an exemplar of the genre or was this campaign doomed from the start? Let’s find out!!
Our fantasy hero for this epic tale is the bard Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) who has been locked up for several years after a regrettable crime and wishes for nothing more than to pay his debt to society and reunite with his daughter (Chloe Coleman)! Well at least that’s the story he wants you to believe when in actuality he’s a thief who got himself and his partner Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) locked up after a botched robbery, and instead of paying his debt to society he’s just gonna break himself and Holga out of there to reunite with his daughter who has been under the care of another member of their crew who managed to escape. Said escapee is Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) who I’m sure you are shocked to learn maybe had something to do with those two getting caught in the first place, and while he has been taking care of Edgin’s daughter, he’s also been cavorting with a red wizard (Daisy Head) and, worst of all, has gone into politics to become the Lord of Neverwinter! With Forge intent on keeping his power and the red wizard Sofina looking to advance her own agenda, Edgin and Holga are forced to go on the run and find a way to stop them; most likely by pulling off a heist because that’s what they’re good at. To help with this task they recruit another former associate, the young wizard Simon (Justice Smith), as well as a tiefling druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis) who has her own reasons for wanting to bring down the current Neverwinter administration. Along the way, they’ll find themselves in perilous situations, fighting red wizard minions, and facing tough emotional conflicts; quipping their way through it all because this crew is on the chaotic side of the alignment and are at least a little flexible on the good and evil axis. Can a band of such disparate misfits hope to pull off this heist against a stronger and more ambitious foe? What lessons must be learned for them to come together as a team and fight for the greater good? Can they maybe fight for the neutral good or semi-good? I mean being a hero doesn’t pay the bills, right?
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Dungeons & Dragons movie, but this was a pleasant surprise, to say the least! I’m certainly not as over the moon with it as a lot of people are, but I saw the effort and had a good time with what they were able to pull off here. The genius of this movie is that it plays more like a spoof than a serious attempt at translating the game to the screen. This benefits the movie by allowing the audience to enjoy the surface-level level elements of what is being presented without the pressure of understanding the more nuanced references or even fully comprehending how certain mechanics work. Because everything stays light and just on the edge of being a satire, the lore is allowed to take a backseat for the fans to enjoy without getting in the way of the narrative. This is the problem that the Warcraft movie ran headfirst into which no doubt had the passion but failed to bring non-fans on board with its convoluted plot that took itself far too seriously. That said, perhaps a bit more import on the film’s plot was needed as that is what brings this movie down the most. It has some fun and interesting characters to be sure and the set pieces that get them from place to place are fun to watch play out, but the movie is just a little too laid back and has far too much narrative shorthand for me to engage with it on more than a surface-level. The villains are perhaps the most obvious example as they are stock even for something like this and Chloe Coleman as Pine’s daughter is severely lacking in screen time and character development for Pine’s quest to feel like more than a Save the Princess storyline. Michelle Rodriguez and Pine do what they can with the material they are given, and I think Rodriguez ends up being the standout, but the younger actors are mostly serviceable and are broadly written with very obvious character arcs to overcome. The only part of the movie where the themes and dialogue sparkle is when they run into a paladin played by Regé-Jean Page comes in and creates static with Chris Pine as something of a reflection of his character; a possible version of himself that held onto the ideals he held before succumbing to temptation and becoming a thief. It’s a shame that we couldn’t reach that level of writing all the way through, but then again it’s a movie that prioritizes aesthetics and humor over layered character exploration so it’s hard to really point this out as a flaw given the movie’s aims. That said, it seems to want to be both loose and smarmy while also being heartwarming and genuine which is a needle that you can potentially thread as James Gunn has done with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but I don’t think they pulled it off here even if this is one of the better attempts. This problem between heart and snark can also be seen in the action scenes which are fun and stylish, but also feel somewhat contrived; relying more on what would be fun to see and ticking D&D reference boxes instead of how it progresses the plot forward. This is a little less of an issue though because spectacle is the name of the game when it comes to fantasy action set pieces and frankly they’ll be remembered long after everyone’s forgotten the finer points of the narrative.
I feel a little out of step with other critics out there who have been showering this with praise as I can’t quite get that excited about it, but I can see why it appeals to a lot of people and I did have a pretty good time with it. If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre then there hasn’t been a better movie in theaters for quite some time that will scratch that particular itch and I’d highly recommend checking it out. Seriously, what other options do you have for Sword and Sorcery adventure? Heck, this is more of what I’d expect from a Guy Ritchie fantasy movie than the actual Guy Ritchie fantasy movie we got with that King Arthur movie he did!