By Seth Freilich | Film | March 11, 2023 |
By Seth Freilich | Film | March 11, 2023 |
Before the Paramount production logo even hits the screen, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has two issues working against it. First, it has to try to shed the baggage of the abysmal 2000 Dungeons & Dragons, the only good thing about which can be said is that Jeremy Irons shows up with it all. The second one is thornier, as the movie has to finely thread the needle of being entertaining to those who play the game as well as those who know nothing about a twenty-sided die and filling out a character sheet, plus everyone else in between. Impressively, filmmakers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (whose collective credits include Game Night and Spider-Man: Homecoming among several others) shed the baggage and thread the needle, delivering a mostly fun, though slightly bloated, fantasy adventure.
The film essentially opens with a flashback narrated by Chris Pine’s Edgin, a roguish thief with bard-like tendencies who got himself into a bind along with his friend, the warrior Elga (Michelle Rodriguez). This is the first of several such scenes, and it’s one of the clever ways that the movie appeases players of the game without putting off everyone else. Particularly as the movie progresses and the viewer becomes more steeped in the fictional world of Faerûn, these scenes are carefully written in a way such that they feel very much like the moments playing the game when the Dungeon Master (the person “running” the game) provides their own expository dump, setting the scene for the overall game campaign, for an upcoming encounter or quest, etc. Of course, this is also a standard filmmaking tool, so it detracts nothing from the viewing experience of those who have never rolled an eight-side die, but it adds an extra flavor for the gamers in the audience.
With the table set, the movie’s story is off and running. Edgin and Elga build a team that includes the middling sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), the half-elf druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), and the infuriatingly uptight paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page). They’re on a quest to steal something from their former friend and colleague Forge (Hugh Grant), a con man who reminds Edgin, when he turns from friend to foe, that one should never trust a con man. Along the way, there are some side quests to obtain magical artifacts, some red wizards up to no good, and a touching underlying thread about Edgin’s relationship with his daughter.
While that opening flashback sets up the story, more importantly, it also sets up the tone. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Theives makes it clear that it is going to take the fantasy and action seriously while also having fun along the way. The film deftly carries a light-hearted tone and peppers jokes in throughout, similar to Game Night though perhaps not quite as successful. Some of the laughs may be more of a chuckle than a gut-buster, but there are some standout jokes and scenes (particularly a crowd-pleasing cemetery scene). Ultimately, when Pine or Grant are clearly having fun themselves — which they are in many moments throughout the film — the movie is a blast. When they are more toned down, however, the film can drag, particularly given the bloated 134-minute run time (like so many current movies, a 30-minute trim to tighten things up could have done wonders here). That said, the rest of the cast all carry their own, with Lillis and especially Smith delivering fun performances, and the script leaning into what Page can do best (stoic smolder).
A film like this, so heavy in the fantasy elements, is of course going to lean as heavily on the effects as the performances, and here it mostly succeeds. There are a couple of fun and exciting action pieces and magic-tinged battles, with some standouts relying upon the hither-thither stick (essentially a portal gun). The creature designs are great, mostly having plenty of source material to pull from, with plenty of easter eggs for fans of the game (my personal favorite being a mimic), including standouts like displacer beats and owlbears. That said, the CGI for these creatures — and especially for the larger-scale locations shots — sometimes feel like they were missing a last round of rendering. It’s not that they look bad (some of the effects are spectacular), there were just times were it felt too much like a cartoon, similar to a lot of the MCU CGI-bloat scenes these days. It’s like the production team rolled a 9 on a D12 (oh, did you think I was done dropping dice references?).
While there are other nits that can be made about the film, they are ultimately beside the point. With a film like this, more than anything you want it to be fun. Mostly fun it is. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of your D&D awareness or lack thereof, there is plenty here to enjoy (including a delightful cameo where a big-name actor gives a surprisingly touching and, ahem, small performance). Come for the sorcery and pudgy dragon, and then stay for the jokes and performances. Or the other way around. How you play this game is entirely up to you.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ had its world premiere at SXSW 2023.