Dungeons & Dragons and the Return of the Sincere Blockbuster
Finally, a fantasy film that’s not embarrassed of itself.
The best sessions of Dungeons & Dragons walk the line between stirring tales of teamwork and achingly nerdy jokes. A barbarian, a bard, a sorcerer, and a druid walk into an inn—what happens next? Why, deeds of derring-do, of course, or at least a bit of hearty axe-swinging. The collaborative tabletop game invites every player to get creative; the most inspired renditions plop players into a fantasy world and ask them to improvise their way through. That unpredictability is grounded by some helpful clichés: The rules of D&D magic will be familiar to anyone who’s seen half a Hobbit, and most of the story narratives follow a tried-and-true hero’s arc.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a new film directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, perfectly bottles that mix of lore and role-playing invention. It pits a group of underdogs against a merciless and all-powerful villain but makes that familiar formula sing—and not just because Chris Pine’s character plays a mean lute. It’s a modern blockbuster, laden with elaborate CGI creatures and extravagant set pieces. But its sincerity recalls a pre-Marvel age: Honor Among Thieves is free of winky jokes to the camera and desperate attempts to set the story up for a legion of hypothetical sequels.
Daley and Goldstein, who are obviously seasoned D&D players with a passion for the game’s intricate world, have created a Princess Bride–esque saga of personal enrichment and revenge that even the most casual fan can get into. At the same time, the film echoes the game’s spontaneity, hopping from encounter to encounter with a jaggedness—characters will be in a tavern one moment and in a hellish underworld minutes later—that feels naturally suited to the story.
Pine plays Edgin Darvis, a charismatic bandit whose skills seem to begin and end at balladry—but like any good D&D bard, he’s good at puffing up everyone around him. His closest (though deeply platonic) companion is Holga (played by Michelle Rodriguez), an exiled warrior with an axe. As the pair roll through their city and its environs, they are joined by two other ne’er-do-wells in search of higher purpose: a mediocre sorcerer named Simon (Justice Smith) and a shape-shifting demon called Doric (Sophia Lillis), who’s fond of turning into a big beastie called an “owl-bear.” Their quest is ostensibly to steal the fortune of a local lord and former ally named Forge (Hugh Grant), but Edgin’s biggest priority is recovering his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), who is trapped in Forge’s care. Whereas everyone else contributes powers martial and/or magical, Edgin mostly tries to figure out how to handle the latest setback, excitedly jabbering about enacting “Plan D” even as his compatriots point out that “Plan D” is exactly the same as “Plan B.” “Yeah, but Plan B has a stink on it,” Edgin grunts.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves could have easily dipped into self-parody, mocking its own silliness to reassure the viewer that everyone’s in on the joke. That subtext of “Don’t worry, nobody takes this stuff seriously” plagues the worst superhero movies; to this day, that genre seems embarrassed of itself, even after years of top billing in cinemas. But though this film is similarly light and airy, and seems to be marketed toward the same audience, I was reminded more of the 1999 remake of The Mummy and its Spielbergian forebears: adventures suffused with loose, self-assured charm.
The action in Honor Among Thieves is well choreographed. Anyone who enjoyed Goldstein and Daley’s last cinematic directorial effort, the comedy thriller Game Night, knows that they approach spatial geography with more care than do many blockbuster filmmakers. But I was really kicking my feet with glee during the film’s flights of storytelling fancy (its 20-sided die rolls for intelligence rather than strength, if you will): One heist, the smuggling of an enchanted painting, incorporates magic portals in imaginative ways, and there’s an interrogation at a graveyard where every corpse can answer five questions before conking out again.
The four travelers also venture into a deep dungeon, aided by the noble, knightly Xenk Yendar (a swooningly straight-arrow Regé-Jean Page), and go up against a particularly portly dragon. The beast is not entirely unthreatening but is soon revealed to be yet another endearing underdog in a film stuffed with them. Dungeons & Dragons partly works because the audience roots for everyone, even the adversaries, to have some fun. The final act, especially, conjures the same joy that drives the game: The further you journey, the deeper your connection to the characters playing alongside you.