One of the struggles with adapting a niche geek property like Dungeons & Dragons, or any game, is finding a way to appeal to hardcore fans while attracting the kind of general audience who couldn’t tell an Owlbear from a Gelatinous Cube. And indeed, with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the goal is not just to use the rulebook to tell a rollicking fantasy story but capture the barely-controlled chaos that comes with actually playing a campaign.
Problem is, that doesn’t often translate to compelling cinema, especially when the craft on display feels as artificial as a pre-fab dungeon map.
Setting Up the Campaign
Writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley certainly have their finger on the pulse of what works about D&D more than the minds behind the last major theatrical attempt to adapt the game in 2000. Game Night proved their forte is in irreverent action-comedy work among a gifted ensemble, and Goldstein and Daley carry that silliness over here.
The focus here is on another ragtag party of misfits, centered around rakish bard Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and his barbarian companion, Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez). After a cute, if exposition-heavy, prison break, we learn that Edgin’s daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), has come under the protection of silver-tongued conman and former party member Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant, channeling some of Jeremy Irons’ camp energy from the 2000 film). He’s taken over the walled city of Neverwinter with the help of a devious Red Wizard known as Sofina (Daisy Head) and poisoned Kira’s mind against her father.
And so, Edgin and Holga set off on your classic D&D quest to save Kira and take revenge on Forge, with the added benefit of stopping the Red Wizards’ devious plan. Along the way, they pick up a few new party members, from the struggling young wizard Simon (Justice Smith) to the druid shapeshifter Doric (Sophia Lillis). They also run into a smooth-talking paladin named Xenk (Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page), whose constipated earnestness proves a welcome refresher to the Marvel-esque quippiness of the other leads.
Guardians of the Dungeon
But that selfsame attempt to cater to casuals with less thee-and-thou dialogue than you’d expect from a high fantasy adventure is one of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it makes plenty of fodder for the main cast to shine: Pine is especially good at this kind of laconic swagger, playing well off Rodriguez’s straight-woman giantess. Smith and Lillis are charming here as well, though the latter gets less to do than the former.
But after a while, the overamped snark starts to wear on you, feeling less like the kind of vernacular you and your friends would exchange in character gathered around the table in your mom’s den and more like cut dialogue from Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s one thing to inject some levity into the kind of quest that can often feel self-serious. It’s another not to take it seriously at all.
That said, there are some charms to the film’s episodic nature, setting our heroes up for all kinds of madcap derring-do and a few visual treats along the way. Whether it’s a classic dungeon crawl across a lava-cloaked underground city or a treasure heist involving Portal-like portals, it’s a treat to see our heroes make plans, see them fail, and scramble to make the rest up as they go along. (A one-take escape as Doric morphs from one animal to another to escape her recon mission in Neverwinter early on is a highlight.) In that way, Honor Among Thieves might truly capture the feeling of an exhausted DM seeing all his elegantly-crafted setpieces go to pot on game night.
Roll for Intelligence
But in its zeal to capture the wild rhythms of such a mythically dense universe, it’s frustrating to see Honor Among Thieves fail to coalesce into a more cohesive story by the time its 134-minute runtime ends. Nevertheless, there are a few character throughlines to explore. For example, Edgin struggles to do right by his daughter, Simon questions his skills as a wizard, and Holga pines for the love she lost while away in prison (a delightful cameo we shan’t spoil here).
Still, these character beats are as rote as they come, resolving them with frustrating predictability. There isn’t enough time to sketch these characters out into fully-fledged people. Instead, they spend each minute running from corpulent dragons, Displacer beasts, and many nasties. They start from an exciting place, thanks mainly to the cast’s charisma. Unfortunately, there’s no room for growth beyond their quest-mandated objectives.
What’s more, the bigger setpieces devolve into regrettable CGI dreck, which makes the world feel paradoxically smaller the bigger it gets. On the other hand, it excels in the smaller, Sam-Raimi-like bits of practical magic, like an extended gag where the group tries to resurrect the right corpse to find out who knows the location of their next magical objective.
Unlike other game adaptations, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a set story; it’s a world designed for the players and Dungeon Master alike to play around. That’s the appeal — you may be traversing Darkest Dungeon #57 and battling your fifth Beholder of the day, but at least you’re palling around with your friends. Honor Among Thieves feels more like tagging along on game night when there’s no space for you in the adventure; you’ve just got to sit there on the sidelines while the cool kids make things up as they go along.
RATING: 6/10 SPECS
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves rolls for damage into theaters on March 16th.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.