If they were ever going to try again, now’s the time.

Though “Dungeons and Dragons” has been a massively popular staple of geekdom and fantasy storytelling for decades (No joke, many video game fixtures can trace their roots back directly to D&D.), a successful film adaptation has proven elusive. Turns out that a game of highly interactive storytelling powered mostly by the players’ imaginations didn’t make for an easy or simple transfer to a less abstract and more heavily curated experience of cinema.

But then along came James Gunn, who revolutionized the film industry with the one-two punch of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad, showing that it was not only possible but highly lucrative to adapt geek-friendly properties by adopting an irreverent and mature charm and centering the product around a motley crew of misfits working through their differences. The other big breakthrough came by way of writer/directors Johnathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, previously responsible for the criminally underrated Game Night, using board game imagery to deliver what might be the single greatest action/comedy/crime thriller film made for a mainstream release in recent memory.

The other big factor was of course the pandemic. While we were all locked inside our houses through pretty much all of 2020, people took to D&D in record numbers, gaming with friends via online group chats. I might add that a recent social media dustup gave the property a great deal of press, especially since the corporate overlords at Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast had the good sense to let their fans take a win.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: No, I don’t know anything about D&D except what I’ve learned through cultural osmosis. I’d love to give it a try, but it’s something I just couldn’t find my way into.)

The stars were in perfect alignment for this one. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves simply had to be a hit. If a successful film adaptation couldn’t be made under such ideal conditions, it was never going to happen. Good thing this was the time when somebody finally got it right.

Exec Producer Chris Pine plays Edgin, a bard who started out catching villains and writing wrongs as a proud member of a peacekeeping corps called the Harpers. Long story short, a group of evil Red Wizards went seeking vengeance for Ed’s efforts — while Ed and his daughter (Kira, played by Chloe Coleman) were left alive, Ed’s wife (Zia, played by Georgia Landers) was brutally slain. Distraught with grief, Ed supports himself and his daughter by abandoning the Harpers and turning to a life of crime.

Enter Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a barbarian who got exiled from her clan when she married a halfling (played in a speaking cameo role by Bradley Cooper), who in turn left her. Though Ed and Holga are romantically incompatible, she agrees to help raise Kira and assist in Ed’s petty theft. In short order, they’re joined by an amateur sorcerer (Simon, played by Justice Smith) and a con artist rogue named Forge (Hugh Grant).

Enter Sofina (Daisy Head), a Red Wizard who’s clearly and obviously evil, coming to our gang for help in raiding an ancient vault. Ed is obviously skeptical of the woman who looks and acts like a freaking ghoul, until he learns that the vault contains a magical tablet that can resurrect his dead wife. To make another long story short, Sofina escapes the vault with an artifact of powerful dark magic, Ed and Holga are imprisoned, while Simon and Forge barely escape.

Cut to two years later, when Ed and Holga break out of prison. In the interim, Forge — with considerable help from Sofina — used his stolen riches and innate charisma to claim lordship over the massive city of Neverwinter. Additionally, Forge has taken custody of Kira, raising her with malicious half-truths about why her dad went away. (Yeah, she’s got two thieving liars competing to be her father figure, poor kid.) Pissed off with this turn of events, Ed and Holga resolve to steal Forge’s newfound wealth, topple him from power, get Kira back, and figure out what the hell Sofina’s up to in the bargain.

(Side note: Going into this, there was a lot of speculation as to whether there would be some kind of Lego Movie reveal to show that this whole story is the work of tabletop gamers on a campaign. Don’t worry. The film never even hints at going there.)

Got all that? Good. Let’s meet the supporting cast.

  • Simon is still a cut-rate sorcerer, struggling with his pathologically low self-esteem as he uses inconsistent magic tricks for petty theft.
  • Doric (Sophia Lillis) is a tiefling druid who can shapeshift into different animals. She’s a denizen of the forest, pissed off because Forge is committing open genocide against the forest and those who dwell in it.
  • Xenk Yendar (Rege-Jean Page) is a paladin who is simply perfect. His whole deal is that he’s impossibly, boringly, frustratingly perfect. He’s so OP, Xenk only gets one massively awesome set piece at the halfway point before the filmmakers come up with some bullshit excuse to get him out of the film for good.

This movie has a consistent problem with exposition. There’s a metric ton of backstory to get through, there are all these different races to explain, we’ve got a whole ensemble of characters to introduce and develop, there’s a whole system of magic to define… it’s a lot to juggle.

Yes, there are indeed times when the film stumbles with lazy writing and threadbare cliches. The nature of magic and its limitations is left a bit unclear, especially since it’s hard to know where magic ends and Simon’s insecurities begin. I could also point to an honest-to-goddamn Portal Gun that conveniently falls into our lap out of nowhere. But easily the most prominent example concerns Sofina and her fellow Red Wizards — one-dimensional, cellophane, woefully boring villains with no motivation whatsoever except evil for the sake of it.

On the other hand, the main characters are developed with a number of shortcuts that actually work. For one thing, Forge is such a monumental douchebag that none of the characters need much encouragement in helping to bring him down. That does speed things along quite nicely. More importantly, the casting does pretty much all the heavy lifting. Let’s run down the list, shall we?

  • Hugh Grant has made a career out of playing the weaselly over-the-top villain who’s fun to hate, ever since at least Paddington 2.
  • Chloe Coleman has already played more or less the same role in My Spy, Marry Me, Gunpowder Milkshake, 65, and so on.
  • Rege-Jean Page, the costume drama heartthrob of “Bridgerton”, is here playing the epitome of chivalry.
  • Sophia Lillis has plenty of experience as the clever and deceptively tough girl by way of It (2017) and Gretel & Hansel.
  • Justice Smith plays a socially awkward loser who gradually learns to assert himself and accept his own competence, much like he did in Detective Pikachu and the Jurassic World movies.
  • Michelle Rodriguez is once again playing a battle-hardened badass, as she did with Avatar and most of the Fast & Furious movies.
  • Chris Pine… shit, when hasn’t he played a charismatic scoundrel in this lane?

None of these actors are trying much of anything new beyond their established wheelhouses. Then again, it’s not like anyone asked for Oscar-worthy acting with this picture. Indeed, casting actors who could go the safe and familiar route helps to make the characters feel immediately recognizable without the need for excessive backstory and development. More importantly, it means the actors are all comfortable enough to play with their well-practiced routines, leading to a sense of fun that makes the comedy really land.

That brings me to another factor that helps with the exposition: The filmmakers find all sorts of ways to make the various exposition dumps fun. My personal favorite example concerns a magic token that can only revive the dead long enough to ask five questions each. Thus the characters have to dig up an entire cemetery, interrogating one corpse after another, until they finally get the full story they need. Between the editing, the scripting, and the performing, that whole sequence is freaking hilarious.

Granted, the film does follow predictable beats and threadbare cliches in the broad strokes. There’s a thoroughly worthless romance non-story between Simon and Doric, we get one of those tedious and unnecessary drawn-out death speeches, Simon’s development arc could be drawn with a ruler, and that whole plot point with the resurrection tablet ends exactly as you think it will.

But then we get the central heist plot, which is appropriately loaded with clever plans and unforeseen mishaps and diabolical twists and so on. My other favorite innovation is easily the Themberchaud, an extraordinarily fat dragon. The filmmakers could’ve gone with a dragon in the traditional design, but making this particular dragon so much heavier than expected opens up so many possibilities with regard to action and comedy (“Did he eat the last one?!”) without diminishing the threat. Brilliant.

Which brings me to the action sequences. I’m sorry to say that with regard to the more “traditional” fight sequences — as when Holga or Xenk take on a squadron of bad guys — the camerawork and editing are sadly underwhelming. But the huge CGI set pieces are truly astounding. I could point to the whole sequence with the Themberchaud, and the final climactic battle with Sofina has some great moments as well. But then we’ve got the chase sequence — presented as a single long unbroken take — in which Doric takes multiple shapes as she struggles to outmaneuver her pursuers. Mind-blowing stuff, absolutely dazzling.

Overall, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is nothing more or less than a good solid fantasy adventure romp. Yes, the movie doesn’t exactly offer much of anything new — and did I mention that the overarching Red Wizard threat is boring as shit? — but anything consistently tired and threadbare couldn’t be so creative and funny and whip-smart through so much of the runtime.

Even to my untrained eye, I’m quite sure longtime fans will appreciate all the effort the filmmakers took in loading the film with established D&D imagery. And anyone new to the franchise will have a blast watching seasoned actors do what they do best by way of a hilarious script with magnificent CGI set pieces and a serviceable heist plot. Oh, and the film lightly teases potential for a sequel without making the ending a full-on cliffhanger, which is always appreciated.

I had a great time with this one. Check it out.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities — Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

  1. I as well have limited knowledge in regards to D&D (I mostly know about the response it got from the Christian crowd during the Satanic Panic) but I had a fun time watching this as well. Much like you said, it doesn’t offer anything new to the table but I still ended up enjoying it more than some of the latest comic book flare.

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