- John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
- Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Hugh Grant
- 134 min.
- Release Date
When I was a kid in the 1980s, someone in my family—I don’t remember whom—gave me a Dungeons & Dragons book of rules. “Read this book first!” it said in yellow letters, below which an image of an armored knight fighting off a scaly dragon donned the striking red cover. Inside, the book explained the game’s elaborate role-playing setup and how the limits were your imagination. But there was another limitation. You needed friends. My family lived in a small neighborhood, a sub-suburbia on the outskirts of suburbia, and there weren’t any children around my age. Most were several years older or younger, and none were into the fantasy and science fiction I enjoyed. The book became a reminder of my social solitude, so I never played or learned any of the mythology behind Dungeons & Dragons. Instead, I actively avoided anything to do with it, including the cartoon, video games, and 2000 movie. Instead, I collected X-Men comics, read (and re-read) The Lord of the Rings books, and watched a lot of movies. For most of my life, Dungeons & Dragons would be a bitter reminder that I didn’t have many friends as a child.
Cut to today. I still don’t know much about group role-playing games, and I couldn’t tell you a single detail about Dungeons & Dragons, apart from what I’ve seen on Stranger Things. But I have to review the new movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Paramount’s $150 million production starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, and several other likable performers. The movie was directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who made the terrific Game Night (which I reviewed positively in 2018, and I have since rewatched enough times to declare it a personal favorite—the rare comedy that’s still funny after multiple viewings). However, though I would usually be equipped with some knowledge about the intellectual property of most big-budget tentpoles, since I have actively avoided Dungeons & Dragons, I cannot provide much context, short of reading a Wikipedia page, and that I won’t do.
So with the understanding that I have little frame of reference for anything Dungeons & Dragons, aside from some lingering childhood resentments, let me tell you about this movie. For starters, it’s a lot of fun. I sat in a packed prescreening with an audience who was clearly familiar with the material. They laughed and enthusiastically stirred with recognition over Easter Eggs that I was oblivious to, but that didn’t bother me. Had it been an MCU or Star Trek movie, I would be doing the same thing while others sat confused. Even though I didn’t understand all of the fanservice embedded into the screenplay by Goldstein, Daley, and co-writer Michael Gilio (who receives story credit alongside The Tomorrow War director Chris McKay), the fantasy milieu, quippy humor, and lovingly conceived production values proved entertaining. Goldstein and Daley are gifted filmmakers and imbue this well-worn genre material with the same energy and spirit that makes their Game Night such a joy to revisit.
The movie contains evil wizards, rugged barbarians, novice sorcerers, druids, escapes, stolen treasure, shape-shifters, resurrections, an adorably fierce owl-bear creature, and, of course, dungeons and dragons. While many specifics may appeal to the fanbase, the movie also deploys these trappings with near-constant humor. Take the appearance of a Smaug-like dragon who presides over a lair filled with skeletons and lava; it becomes a visual gag when the creature is revealed to be hilariously overweight, like a pear-shaped cat that can hardly move. Elsewhere, a knight character named Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page, from Bridgerton), proves unable to understand colloquialisms or sarcasm because he’s so noble and true. But the character isn’t only a laughing stock, especially during a sword fight with some undead warriors. While ironic distance might threaten to destabilize the adventurous settings, Goldstein and Daley have done something akin to The Princess Bride (1987) and how it maintains a balance between humor about itself and straightforward adventure.
The story follows Chris Pine as Edgin Darvis, a member of a spy outfit called the Harpers. After losing his wife years earlier, he has raised his daughter (Chloe Coleman) with the help of the monosyllabic warrior Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez). Edgin and Holga end up in prison for two years after trying to steal some treasure, including a Tablet of Reawakening which Edgin seeks to bring his late wife back to life. They mount an escape from their dungeon and reconnect with their former accomplice, the shady con man Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), who has since become the Lord of Neverwinter thanks to the help of his evil wizard conspirator, Sofina (Daisy Head). Forge has also brainwashed Edgin’s daughter, prompting Edgin and Holga to scout for help to stop the bad guys and rescue the kid. They enlist Simon (Justice Smith), a young sorcerer with confidence issues, and Doric (Sophia Lillis), a “tiefling druid” who can change into animals and insects. Together, they set out to find a MacGuffin that will lead to another MacGuffin that will allow them to save the day.
Although the brand-specific terminology was lost on me, Goldstein and Daley draw from a familiar Hollywood playbook. The narrative structure borrows from The Avengers (2012), complete with a group of bickering heroes who assemble a team to fight an all-powerful villain. Similarly, there’s an apocalyptic threat from the sky and even a scene analogous to the Hulk smashing Loki with comic brutality near the end. The filmmakers nod to Steven Spielberg, too, evidenced by the opening that recalls a similar first scene in Jurassic Park (1993) or the way a character climbing to safety narrowly evades the chubby dragon’s jaws like the famous velociraptor jump-scare. Such comparisons are not meant to disparage Honor Among Thieves, only to note that there’s a feeling of familiarity that will make any popcorn-munching viewer of blockbuster-sized entertainment feel right at home. Then again, there’s also a feeling that the product has been engineered by looking at formulas of other successes.
Even so, Honor Among Thieves is a well-crafted movie. The filmmakers use convincing practical makeup and costumes to bring mythic creatures to tangible life. Orcs, an eagle man, reanimated soldiers, and a giant fish that eats a cat-person’s child all look convincingly tactile. Cinematographer Barry Peterson (who shot Game Night) captures the splendor of real castles and estates in England and Ireland to give the proceedings a medieval flair. Sure, the filmmakers use plenty of CGI too, and it’s not always as convincing. But the material remains so blithely propelled that it hardly matters. This is because the movie remains focused on characters and strong onscreen personalities. Pine’s roguish swagger gives him Han Solo appeal, albeit with a worthy motivation to restore his family. Rodriguez’s stoic warrior has a surprising backstory, too, including an unexpected cameo by her character’s former lover. Smith’s sorcerer has a worthy arc about overcoming his self-doubt, though his courtship of Lillis’ hard-nosed druid character is underdeveloped. Best of all, Grant continues his recent renaissance, playing villains in Paddington 2 (2017) and Guy Ritchie’s work, with another charming baddie you love to hate.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves brought to mind Warcraft (2016), another expensive fantasy film whose mythology eludes me. Although I liked Warcraft, it didn’t connect with a broader audience. However, there’s more mainstream appeal built into Honor Among Thieves, thanks to a star-studded cast, accessible sense of humor, and sense of fun that allows those unfamiliar, like myself, to enjoy the experience. It’s tricky to take established intellectual property with decades of quests, characters, and products across multiple forms of media and make something that satisfies fans and welcomes outsiders into the fold. It’s even trickier to inject irony into a movie without neutralizing the earnest plot (see 2011’s Your Highness, or don’t). Based on the reaction of the crowd, Honor Among Thieves hits the sweet spot. As for me, well, this was a pleasant entry point. If there’s a sequel, I’ll be eager to see it. I don’t know that I’ll rush out to join a six-hour campaign with friends around a card table in their basement anytime soon. But I had fun.