'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves' review: Roll the dice with breezy fantasy epic
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Coming into “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” with what little knowledge I knew about the game’s lore was intimidating, but the quality test of any movie based on existing brands derives from weather or not it can reach across the isle and educate a newb like myself on why people love it so much. In an incredible feat, and one of the year’s biggest surprises, writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have delivered a breezy fantasy epic that, on its own terms, is a faithful adaptation far removed from the early 2000s disaster (poor Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans), but captures a chipper and buoyant attitude reminiscent of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. It’s the best-case scenario for a movie nobody, including myself, had high expectations for.
The issues with previous ill-fated attempts at bringing this popular IP to the big screen was their failure at understanding the mechanics of a good campaign and not having fun with the material. How often has “D&D” been the punchline of cruel jokes that bullies throw at people? Clearly Daley and Goldstein (who were responsible for tastefully merging Tom Holland’s Spider-Man into the MCU) know how to mock the stigma around playing the game, but in “Honor Among Thieves,” they’ve found a calculated balance that gives them leash to both lean into the game’s mythology and not take itself too seriously. The two paths merge into a solid, family-friendly adventure where the idea of future installments doesn’t sound horrible (and I’m sure the brass at Paramount would love to have another franchise in their slim arsenal).
And though Dungeons & Dragons are the main draw for devout fans, its hook into the universe for casual players rides on the backs of the ensemble, of which the filmmakers have assembled a crackerjack crew who anchor the film’s fantastical elements, but also have terrific chemistry and comedic presence. The film opens with the chatty bard Edgin (Chris Pine – charming and suave as ever) and his best friend Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) holed up in their chilly prison cell, nearing the end of a two-year pinch. There are both up for parole and it forces Edgin to plead his case, which means delving into the backstory of his daughter Kira (played by Chole Coleman), his wife’s untimely death, and how himself and Holga got imprisoned in the first place (a simple petty theft job didn’t go as planned).
It's a hilarious sequence that quickly sets the tone Daley and Goldstein (alongside co-writer Michael Gilio) are trying to accomplish and when Edgin and Holga manage to escape, we’re off to the races. The duo head for Neverwinter, where Kira lives with an old ally, Forge (a persnickety Hugh Grant) who now runs the show and fancies himself a father figure and has told numerous lies that complicate the father-daughter reunion. There are other, darker forces at play, but Edgin’s determination to win back the trust of his daughter, which involves locating a magic relic that can revive his wife, will require a rag-tag team.
He recruits Simon (Justice Smith), a sorcerer with major insecurities and Doric (Sophia Lillis), a druid who can morph into anything from a worm to an ostrich (her powers are breathlessly displayed in an unforgettable seven-minute tracking shot). Later in the game, they’ll work with Xenk (Regé-Jean Page – of “Bridgerton” fame), a compassionate leader known for speaking in cryptic riddles and passages. The banter between him and Edgin produces a hearty amount of belly laughs.
Everyone in the main cast understood the humor and approach, something that keeps “Honor Among Thieves” afloat during the middle stretch of the film wherein the narrative becomes a bit convoluted and weighed down by a montage of tepid sword fights and uninspired baddies. And for every zippy one liner (courtesy of Pine) that does land its mark, there are several others in serious need of a tune-up. Those heavily invested in the game might appreciate the subtle digs, but there are moments when the film struggled to hold my attention. Nevertheless, when the movie starts cooking, especially during the transition from the second act towards the climax, everything comes into focus. Here, the wondrous production design, gorgeous scenery, and amplified special effects offer a consistent buzz next to the sturdy action choreography and engaging heist operation.
The movie might not reach a Nat 20, but it gets +15 for initiative.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES opens in theaters Friday, March 31st