The classic tabletop role-playing game has returned to the big screen. If those words don’t immediately inspire a lot of confidence in devoted geeks and average moviegoers alike, have no fear; Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a lot of fun. While certainly influenced by the modern blockbuster as far as having perhaps too much of a knowing sense of humor regarding the fantastical activities taking place around these characters, it still feels fitting for a film such as this. Plus, while I’m not speaking from experience, the balance of action, comedy, and fantasy comes with what feels like a devoted attempt by fans of the game to deliver a cinematic experience packed with Easter eggs to satisfy fans without overwhelming those less experienced in the world of swords and wizardry. All of this adds up to a good time at the movies.
Set in what’s known as the Forgotten Realms, Chris Pine stars as Edgin Darvis, a bard class character searching for a treasure that can revive his deceased wife. Joined by his loyal companion Holga (Michelle Rodriguez, barbarian class), the two eventually find themselves as fugitives who must team up with an okay wizard (Justice Smith, sorcerer class) and a young shapeshifter (Sophia Lillis, druid class) for a plan to take up arms against a former ally, Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant, rogue class) and his necromancer, Sofina (Daisy Head), a Red Wizard. During this journey, the heroes’ campaign will involve traveling through enchanted territories, defeating fierce creatures, and possible encounters with a dragon or two.
Co-written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, their previous film, Game Night, set in place the idea that these two had more on their minds than simply shooting and cutting to the best-improved comedy bits for a scene. While an entirely different sort of film, Game Night had more visual inventiveness than one would expect from a modern studio comedy, and combined with the filmmakers’ love for Dungeons & Dragons, it helped me in wanting to embrace a new DnD movie as more than just a cash grab based around (somewhat) familiar IP. Fortunately, that interpretation paid off.
A highly irreverent tone to ‘Honor Among Thieves’ allows the film to stand out from other fantasy adventure films. No, we don’t get the 70s rock songs the trailers of the film heavily played up, but in terms of how these characters act, it serves as a reminder that a medieval fantasy realm is not the same as the actual European Dark Ages. If anything, following along with this group felt like having a group of friends playing a tabletop RPG, complete with jokes, squabbles, and eventually finding that momentum needed to take down evil wizards and what have you.
This speaks highly to the cast, who are all clearly having a lot of fun. Pine doesn’t have to do films like this to show what he’s capable of, but here we are with the sort of winning charm that allows him to feel elevated in the ongoing “who’s the best Chris” wars plaguing cinemas everywhere. His chemistry plays well with Rodriguez in a more action-oriented role, calibrated well enough to feel different from what she’s offered in the Fast & Furious movies. On the younger side, Smith and Lillis provide what’s needed, as their varying forms of confidence inform the arcs for their roles. Their abilities allow for more creative fun, which I’ll discuss later.
For a stretch in the middle of the film, Regé-Jean Page arrives as Xenk Yendar (paladin class) for what feels like a parody of the smoldering action hero, making for a fine foil to Pine’s Edgin. The brilliant choice is having Xenk be in the film just long enough instead of holding onto him for the duration. Similar things can be said about Grant’s villainous character. The veteran star is only in a handful of scenes but makes a meal out of them, easily serving as a continual highlight. We’ve seen many of these turns from Grant as of late, and he really does seem to relish delivering these performances in a way that benefits all.
Of course, being a fantasy film, one would hope seeing things like spells being cast and wondrous creatures making their appearance pays off in a big way – and they do. ‘Honor Among Thieves’ is packed with visual effects, but not in a way that feels overwhelming for the film. The rules of this world seem pretty straightforward, which helps. Still, I enjoyed seeing how magic is utilized, let alone some inventive creatures. Along with a chunky dragon encounter, there’s an owl bear that Lillis’ Doric occasionally transforms into, along with a monster-ized Panther that can trick its prey using its dual tails.
Noting some of these creatures is all well and good, but it’s how this film creatively structures its more action-heavy set pieces that impress. While the film is overlong for what it’s trying to accomplish, it does manage to deliver on the big moments scattered throughout the film. I’d even go as far as to say that the film gets better as it goes along, building up to a finale that truly captures the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons by emphasizing teamwork, magic, and hit points.
A key to all of this is just how likable it is. Honor Among Thieves is not exactly breaking new ground in the realm of fantasy adventure films, but it does allow for plenty of humor to seep into the storytelling and with these characters in a manner that breaks up the severity that can be a burden on films where the material just doesn’t support an achingly dramatic tone. However, that’s not to say this film doesn’t have stakes. Enough is accomplished to make an audience care about how things turn out, the relationships being tested, and what peril this group faces. The fact that this film can get away with certain emotional beats by the end is a credit to solid filmmaking.
Whether or not this movie turns anyone into an actual player of the game, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has the feel of a big-budget adventure that is not afraid to embrace its source material and have fun with it. The cast is up to the challenge of letting themselves look silly while establishing what matters, and the work done to realize this magical world is as impressive as it needs to be. We’ll have to wait and see if the dungeon masters at Paramount will be willing to set up another campaign for this crew of misfits. Still, I’d be happy to roll the dice again, regardless.