DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES Review: D&D on the Big Screen Done Right
Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page and Hugh Grant star in an action adventure directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, opening in movie theaters worldwide.
Despite an aborted attempt at a standalone franchise of its own more than two decades ago, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the venerable tabletop, role-playing game created in the late 1970s, remained until recently one of the last, great, untapped media properties.
But where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s a way, even if that particular way takes the better part of a decade in development, shifting screenwriters, directors, and actors, and countless false starts. Not surprisingly, it’s left longtime D&D fans frustrated, especially as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings similarly themed medieval fantasy series managed to generate an Oscar-winning trilogy, a commercially successful prequel trilogy based on The Hobbit, and another prequel series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, over the same span.
The lavish, effects-heavy big-screen result, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, should more than appease wary, longtime fans who’ve dreamed of seeing the lore, legends, and mythos of the game brought to reel life for the better part of four or five decades. Just as importantly, though, it won’t leave non-fans in the audience behind, scratching their heads, rubbing their chins, or raising their eyebrows wondering what exactly they’re seeing onscreen and why they’re sitting in a darkened movie theater in the first place. Long-timers and first-timers alike will find much to like, admire, and even love in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
Directed and co-written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Game Night), Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens in cheeky, fourth-wall breaking, meta-fictional fashion, a sign of narrative sleights of hand to come, as Edgin (Chris Pine), a onetime do-gooder and ex-Harper’s Guild member turned thief, recounts his tale of woe from the confines of a medieval prison cell. His best friend and platonic life partner, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a burly barbarian and warrior, has joined him in the cell, though neither remains imprisoned for long as they make good their escape with the inadvertent help of an unwitting accomplice, Jonathan (his description counts as a spoiler).
With “escaped convicts” added to their list of crimes, Edgin and Holga, the former driven by his paternal instincts to reunite with his teen daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), the latter out of unerring loyalty to Edgin, set out on the first of several related quests, each one the equivalent of a D&D adventure and the film, seen as a whole from a macro perspective, as the equivalent of a campaign. Before Edgin can rescue Kira from the clutches of onetime-friend-turned-foe Forge (Hugh Grant), he needs to get a heist together, starting with Simon (Justice Smith), a junior-grade sorcerer distinctly lacking in self-confidence, Doric (Sophia Lillis), a shape-changer distrustful of humans, and later, Xenk (a scene-stealing Regé-Jean Page), a century-old paladin of immense charm, perfect diction, and battle skills to match.
Each member of the “team” contributes a very special set of skills familiar to D&D players, but they also contribute something else: strong, well-defined characters who, alone and collectively, become an almost inexhaustible source of verbal and physical humor throughout Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, often pulling in different, conflicting directions, occasionally to semi-disastrous effect. Ultimately, though, they, like the long-lived characters in Rodriguez’s other franchise (The Fast & the Furious), have to learn basic lessons about trust, responsibility, and, of course, the true, non-Hallmark meaning of family (i.e.., biological and non-biological), all while they evade all manner of traps, obstacles, and cunning, red-robed wizards with nefarious agendas of their own and win the only real prize worth winning, friendship.
As a writing and directing duo, Daley and Goldstein have already proven themselves remarkably adept at balancing various dramatic and comedic tones, clearly defined action, and character arcs. All were in evidence in Game Night, easily one of the best studio action-comedies of the last decade, but it was an open question whether Daley and Goldstein could bring those same sensibilities to a much larger, more effects-heavy canvas. The short (and long) answer: They did and they have without showing any of the growing pains typical of filmmakers working with bigger budgets, larger casts, and more complex set pieces.
That certainly bodes well for their careers, but assuming they remain as part of the D&D world, it bodes well too for whatever happens next in the series. As a bonus, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will more than likely draw new, D&D-curious players to the fold, extending the tabletop, role-playing game’s viability for another generation and beyond.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens im North American movie theaters on Friday, March 31, via Paramount Pictures.