In spite of a rocky first third, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a delightful, if slightly unsurprising, swords and sorcery film that balances the goofball antics of playing tabletop role-playing games and focused storytelling without sacrificing approachability. It follows a rag-tag group of adventurers who spend a little too long on their traumatic backstories as they attempt to right the wrongs of their past. Sort of. That’s kind of incidental, really. Despite all the marketing about saving a world from evil and fighting epic battles, this is the story of a family struggling to stay together, about a dad and his platonic life partner trying to get back to their kid.
It’s a rough start for Chris Pine’s Edgin and Michelle Rodriguez’ Holga. After spending two years in a panopticon-like ice prison, they finally escape, only to return home and find Edgin’s child, Kira–whom Holga also considers a daughter–missing. As Edgin and Holga trudge from classic Faerun locale to locale with little to no fanfare (but with a good amount of scenic shots) they fail to find their kid. When they finally track Kira down, she’s in the clutches of the double-crossing rogue, Forge (Hugh Grant), and an old enemy.
The only way to get her back is to steal her away in the middle of a blood-and-bread gladiator/labyrinth/Hunger Games event that Forge is putting on in order to make tons–and I mean fucktons–of gold. Edgin and Holga travel around Faerun (again, very scenic, very nice) and gather a team to help them along the way, including their old friend, Simon the Sorcerer (Justice Smith), who doesn’t really believe in himself very much, and Doric (Sophia Lillis), a Tiefling Druid who hates humans because of a deep personal betrayal. They also get helped out by the immortal? -ish? Paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) who has a mysterious tie to the Red Sorcerers.
Amid daring schemes, exciting fights, and flashbacks (like, a lot of flashbacks), Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have pulled together a solid film. The comedy is a little rushed, but the jokes all land, the characters mostly come together as charming iterations of classic D&D classes, and there’s not a poor performance out of the group. Hugh Grant might be the only person you could argue isn’t pulling his weight, but he’s not given much to do except ooze skeezey rizz and lie, so I’ll forgive him. Even the evil sorcerer, Sofina (Daisy Head), feels dynamic and convincingly nefarious, even if her motivations are just “destroy the city on behalf of my overlords,” which… fine, plenty of films disregard a villain’s motivations in favor of the hero, but it does herald the deeply predictable ending of the film.
The plot clips along, everything else keeps up, the sets are pretty, utilizing a kind of charmingly common medieval fantasy visual everyone can recognize, and the use of both very good practical effects and seamless VFX ties the whole package up in a pretty bow. It’s an easy watch, funny when it needs to be, emotionally compromising when it can, and full of gags and the smallest (so, so small) of nods towards D&D lore. Which is probably for the best! D&D lore is notoriously deep and sometimes contradictory, so referencing it in passing, or just allowing background moments to imply a depth keeps the film lightweight and allows people to enjoy the very fun fight scenes and the absolute beauty of Page when he shows up for a glorious 30 minutes in Honor Among Thieves.
Maybe it’s meta, but one of my favorite parts of the film was how carefully the writers and directors considered all of the characters as possibilities of how the players play the game. There are players who are earnest and all in, who make the campaign about their quest for personal wholeness. They only know half of the rules but they’re really invested. (This is Edgin, btw.) There’s the silent tank who only speaks when she really needs to say something, who knows all the rules perfectly and whenever you need someone to own a fight, everyone waits for her turn. There are players who really want to be a magic user and don’t quite know how to use spell slots. Players who have an ambiguous backstory but are definitely prepared to be dramatic at the drop of a hat, and are just following along until they catch on to how to play the game. And of course, the player who has scheduling issues, and when they show up the DM makes sure to give the table a game that makes the uses their character to the fullest extent because of course this is the guy who insists on playing the Paladin they first started playing in college and he’s at level 18 or something. It’s absurd, silly bits of detail to focus on, but I loved it. It felt like no matter how much of Dungeons & Dragons is in the film (which is, frankly, very little) the film was still deeply invested in rendering a portrait of what games are like.
My biggest qualm with this film is that it is so clearly a setup for the next campaign. Many character arcs remain on the precipice of a zenith, at least three storylines remain mysterious and open-ended–even branching, and handsome men in cloaks hint at hidden depths we’ve only just begun to uncover. Not all these things need to be resolved, and, in defense of the film, most films don’t resolve everything, but the sheer heavy-handedness of this particular narrative is deeply frustrating. Page’s Xenk is a huge part of this, as his unexplained tie to the Szass Tam practically begs for a sequel. Not to mention that Tam doesn’t even show up in this film! I want to see their contracts. I want to know how long these actors are locked in.
All of this open-endedness says that the point of this film is not to emulate a game of D&D, or even to emulate anything in the fantasy genre at all. The point of this film is to set up a franchise. We always knew this was the goal, but it’s disappointing to see it so laid out so transparently. And, for the record, as a proof of concept, it succeeds. It’s a good film! I laughed out loud multiple times! But it’s frustrating to watch a film and know that there will be more, dozens more, if Hasbro has their way, all trying to live up to Honor Among Thieves. It’s just a bummer. I can imagine it now; Dungeons & Dragons: The Emerald Enclave; Rise of the Red Sorcerer; Reign of Death. I’m resigning myself to covering at least three more of these, with no real guarantee that they will be anywhere near as good as this one.
Regardless, Honor Among Thieves is well worth a trip to the theaters. It’s fun. It treats its characters like people, it treats its audience with respect, and despite the bitter aftertaste of franchise opportunity I can hear echoing around in my brain like pitch meeting reverb, it’s a good story and makes all the right nods towards Dungeons & Dragons without ever getting lost in the lore. With a shameless reliance on narrative tropes nestled among genuinely solid action/comedy dialogue and excitingly frenetic action sequences, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves does what it’s meant to do: leave me wanting more.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will be released in theaters on March 31.
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