‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ Plays to Win With a Colorful Romp That Captures the Game’s Spirit
Turning any game into cinema remains a challenge fraught with danger. Videogames and analogue distractions depend on the participation of the players, even if they feature complex narratives. The film has to find the story in the game. For much of its running time, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is a pretty colorful, entertaining romp taken from the popular tabletop role-playing game that’s been around since the 1970s. It helps that directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein clearly love this kind of material. The pair scored a hit in 2018 with “Game Night,” which is all you need to know when wondering why they are now helming a new movie version of “Dungeons & Dragons.”
Fantasy has been given such a dreary treatment recently in a post-“Game of Thrones” media landscape, that it’s already refreshing to see “Dungeons & Dragons” begin with a tongue and cheek spirit. It opens in a fortified tower where Edgin (Chris Pine), sits imprisoned along with fellow ruffian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez). Before a hilarious escape involving eagles and high windows, Edgin narrates his journey of once being a Harper, meaning he fought for good, before battling the Red Wizards of Thay. His wife was killed and daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), left under the care of the enigmatic Forge (Hugh Grant). Edgin and Holga set off to find both Kira and the Tablet of Reawakening, which Edgin hopes will bring back his wife. But Forge is now aligned with an evil sorceress, Sofina (Daisy Head), who has her own grand schemes afoot.
More “Monty Python” than “The Witcher,” this version of “Dungeons & Dragons” is about as good a movie as you can pull from the game. It’s certainly superior to the 2000 effort that has quickly been condemned to movie trivia obscurity. You feel some of the pressure of loyalty to the source mainly in the first half, which is mostly the journey of the characters, with the dialogue packed with many specific references and terminology only a diehard “D&D” player will get. Yet this material still works because the characters are generally funny and engaging. Justice Smith plays aspiring wizard Simon, who has to overcome his own insecurities to prove he’s a worthy adventurer. Sophia Lillis is the shape-shifting Doric, meaning she gets some of the most inventive CGI sequences. Chris Pine’s Edgin, who has some of his rambunctious Captain Kirk from “Star Trek,” is annoyed to no end by another addition to the group, Xenk (Regé-Jean Page), a chiseled paladin who completely lacks a sense of humor and irony.
“We like to challenge ourselves and after ‘Game Night,’ which was our attempt to challenge what people perceive a typical mid-budget comedy to be, we really wanted to tackle something that has this preconception attached to it. This movie is not something that you would typically think has all the elements that we tried to introduce: Humor, heart, this semi-subversive kind of take on the fantasy genre,” Daley recently told Entertainment Voice. It is subversive for a fantasy film to be self-referential and goofy these days, when shows like Apple TV’s “See” insist on full despair. One of the movie’s best moments finds the heroes using a particular spell to bring back the decayed corpses of warriors on a battlefield then having to ask a certain amount of questions before they can rest again. When Pine runs out of things to ask, the scene becomes a great gag.
These directors established a detailed, rich visual style with “Game Night” that they bring to “Dungeons & Dragons,” never allowing it to feel bland. The camera glides and moves in this movie, like in a thrilling scene where Doric changes into various animals while escaping from Sofina. “When we’re writing a scene we like to think of ‘how can we make this fresh?’ We ponder in what ways we’ve never seen a certain scene be done before. It’s the same for the visuals,” is how Goldstein put it to Entertainment Voice. The culminating, grand showdown of the third act is the movie’s most fun section, when our heroes have to battle it out through a maze of obstacles sure to cheer “D&D” fans. Game favorites like the acidic Gelatinous Cube are all there to confound or devour participants. There’s also a big, bulky dragon chomping his way down a mound of treasure in an underground cave.
Davey and Goldstein are seasoned veterans of writing box office titles, from “Horrible Bosses” to “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The latter is testament to why this also feels like a movie made by filmmakers who have taken the better lessons Marvel can offer. Having a good time with the personalities is just as important as the big visual effects, at least when it works. Hugh Grant looks like he’s savoring his role as Forge, a sneaky, charismatic baddie. Daisy Head should keep her Sofina wardrobe and attitude on standby by for the next Halloween party. Chris Pine gets to sing with a lute and dodge magical projectiles, while Michelle Rodriguez is rugged and flirtatious. You really can’t expect more from a film based on “Dungeons & Dragons” and this one delivers for the players and the curious.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” releases March 31 in theaters nationwide.