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Film Review: ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ Embarks on a Hilarious Fantasy Adventure

Paramount Pictures

If you throw a rock in any American cinema, you’ll probably hit somebody and be forced to leave. But if you were to throw one in such a way that it only landed on the films that are playing there (for the purpose of this already-tortured metaphor), then odds are good it would land on something that is either part of a bigger franchise, or wants to create a bigger franchise. The Marvel-ization of Hollywood has left studios chasing not just sequels, but now prequels, spinoffs, soft reboots, hard reboots, new sequels that ignore some of the older sequels but not others, and more.

It can be maddening for the average filmgoer to keep up with what’s connected to what, with some releases demanding so much prior knowledge that the simple act of going to the movies can sometimes feel like completing the latest homework assignment, done out of obligation more than any desire for entertainment. So, when a new would-be franchise comes along, it really has to stand out from the pack and deliver something more exciting than mere brand recognition if it wants any shot at cultural relevance. Which leads us nicely to Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Here, at first glance, would appear to be the worst kind of offender when it comes to these troubling trends. Based on a decades-old role-playing game with lore so vast and complex as to seem impenetrable, it’s also the fourth attempt to adapt the property to film, following the disastrous Dungeons & Dragons in 2000 and its two presumably loathsome DTV sequels (the first entry is largely remembered today for its CGI dragons that looked abysmal even at the time, and a performance by Jeremy Irons that proudly resides in the Overacting Hall of Fame).

Fortunate for all of us, then, that the 2023 film elects to wipe the slate clean entirely. Here is an original story featuring original characters existing in a world where every race, creed, location, and object has backstory aplenty for anyone who’s curious, but presents it all in a way that’s completely accessible to common folk who’ve never even considered playing the game. Writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (along with co-writer Michael Gilio, from a story by Gilio and Chris McKay) clearly have a love and reverence for this universe, but smartly avoid forcing that reverence on the audience.

For my part, I’ve notched an impressive 1 and ½ campaigns of D&D in total, the first of which was an inebriated lark in which I unseriously portrayed a Paladin named Robocop the Wise, and the second of which stretched out over most of the pandemic through frequent delays and Zoom hiccups. Neither of these were the most optimal way to experience all that the Forgotten Realms have to offer, but at no point in Honor Among Thieves did I feel like any previous knowledge or lack of knowledge was impacting my experience. 

The world-building most closely resembles something like Guardians of the Galaxy or the original Star Wars, showcasing an entire ecosystem filled with unique history and fascinating creatures (an impressive amount of which are rendered via creative practical effects) where the various fantasy elements are all the more intriguing for how little they insist upon themselves. Much of what we learn about the many locales the story takes us to is communicated visually, and the filmmakers never allow exposition or lore to take precedence over characters and action, a quality that automatically puts it above fellow would-be franchise starters ranging from Eragon to Warcraft.

Speaking of story, all of this would amount to very little if we weren’t given reason to care about the events that unfold, and while the broad strokes of the plot may initially appear to be tired and familiar (go to the place, get the MacGuffin, use it to get another MacGuffin, use that to stop the bad guy, etc), the simplistic framework enables the astonishingly sharp screenplay to flesh out all the various details that make the film feel like a cut above its peers, with care and imagination applied to every dialogue exchange and action beat. And lest we forget, this is the duo that brought us 2018’s Game Night, which is arguably the best American comedy of the 2010s, so in addition to being a rollicking adventure and a fantastical heist movie, it’s also funny as hell.

When we first meet the irreverent bard Edgin (Chris Pine) and the passionate barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), they are imprisoned in an icy fortress, awaiting their seemingly ill-fated parole hearing. In a backstory that’s delivered efficiently and enthusiastically by Pine, we learn that the two are soldiers-turned-thieves who were betrayed by their comrade, the roguish Forge (Hugh Grant, whose ponytailed pirate look in these early scenes definitely awakened something in me). After making a thrilling and questionably necessary escape, the two realize that their former partner has installed himself as Lord of Neverwinter, with their plundered riches and Edgin’s conflicted daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) both firmly in his possession.

Friends and partners to the end (any romantic potential is amusingly quashed early on), Edgin and Holga determine that the only way to rescue Kira and take down Forge is to plan a heist around an upcoming tournament. To that end, they put together a team that includes a deeply insecure sorcerer (Justice Smith) and a shapeshifting druid (Sophia Lillis), and briefly enlist the aid of a ridiculously noble paladin (Regé-Jean Page) in a quest that will take them from the subterranean lair of an especially chonky dragon, to an ever-changing maze filled with all sorts of deceptive traps.

The cast is uniformly excellent at bringing these fantastical characters to life, without ever forgetting to make them feel like real, relatable people. They’re all taking their cues from Pine, whose laid-back charisma is a perfect fit for the tone that Goldstein and Daley are clearly going for. The actor brings the laughs with some brilliantly sardonic line deliveries, and is able to provide dramatic weight when the situation calls for it. Ditto Rodriguez, who’s every bit as skilled in her brutal fight scenes as she is with navigating her character’s surprisingly tender past. The buddy-comedy rapport that the two display is an unexpected highlight.

Page isn’t in the film nearly as much as the marketing would suggest, but regardless leaves a strong impression as a warrior who’s almost cartoonishly heroic. His character could easily have been the protagonist of another, more standard fantasy epic, one that’s undoubtedly less fun than this one, and juxtaposing him against the far looser main cast is a great source of humor (the way he exits a scene is one of the best gags in the movie). As the scoundrel our team must scheme against, Grant is a reliably foppish delight, making a meal out of every word. Smith and Lillis are given less to do, and saddled with accents that neither seem fully comfortable with, but both still shine with the moment calls for them.

Much was made in the build-up to the film’s release of a style that drew inspiration from more comically-inclined fantasy touchstones like The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, albeit on the scale of something like Game of Thrones. Though these may sound like lofty ambitions, I’ll be damned if they’re not a completely accurate descriptor of the end result. The film blends its comedy organically within its fantasy setting, such as in a crackerjack sequence where the team learns about a great battle by interrogating the corpses of fallen soldiers. The action is no slouch either, with each set pieces showcasing some kind of inventive camerawork and/or a creative use of the world’s magic systems. In a blockbuster landscape where so much of what we see feels like it was created on autopilot, it’s so refreshing to see a film aim for that action-comedy balance and delivering so generously on both fronts.

It’s not perfect by any stretch. All the praise I’ve lavished upon it must be viewed through the prism of it being a genre film first and foremost. Its world may have many strange and exciting elements begging to be explored, but there are plenty that can’t help but feel familiar just by virtue of fantasy tropes that have proliferated endlessly since the game’s inception. The film’s main villain, a red wizard played by Sarah Head, has a great look but lacks characterization, with little to define her beyond being generically evil (though it is still satisfying to watch the team rally together against her at the end). And although the practical creatures are a joy to behold, not all of the CGI creations got the same love and attention, with some noticeable shortcuts being taken in the final act.

Nitpicks notwithstanding, this is the kind of cheeky genre exercise that we haven’t seen from the world of fantasy since… I dunno, Stardust? Near the halfway point our heroes take a detour to visit Holga’s former lover. I won’t spoil the details of what follows, except to say that it features an incredible cameo the vast majority of people won’t see coming, and that it gets to the heart of what makes the film work. In a moment of levity and humanity between two questionably human characters, that does nothing to advance the plot, we are treated to a scene of quiet domesticity that feels almost alien in a world defined by magic and monsters. It’s very funny, but it’s also quite sad, and taps into an emotional honesty that is so rarely seen among such supernatural goings-on. It’s moments like this that make a character stick with you. That make a movie stick with you. And it’s much easier to get on board with a would-be franchise when it cares enough to stick with you.

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Myles Hughes

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