Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)
No Experience Necessary.
For most, the term ‘epic fantasy’ would probably conjure up thoughts of massive armies marching towards one another — Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy usually comes to mind — or something serious, dark, and gritty such as HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-19). But, for many a geek out there, particularly those who’ve dabbled in the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, ‘fantasy adventure’ most likely has another meaning. Sure, there’s usually some malevolent threat with a world-shattering objective, but the enjoyment of playing D&D typically comes from the wish fulfillment element and having a great time with friends. During the game, there’s nothing stopping a player from doing something random, like venturing into town to seduce the nobility. It’s that kind of experience. All that’s in your way is maybe your Dungeon Master and that 20-sided dice.
This is the playful energy that co-writers-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Game Night (2018), capture perfectly in Paramount’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the film a rip-roaring adventure that lives up to the hype and relishes in the light-hearted goofiness of its source. You see, while it’s set in the enchanted Forgotten Realms, the movie doesn’t build up to some enormous fight where several armies wind up clashing on the battleground. Sure, the world is in danger, from the scourge of the necromancing Red Wizards of Thayn in this instance, but Honor Among Thieves isn’t your typical fantasy — think of it as more of a boisterous heist flick where we shadow a ragtag team made up of character classes from the game.
Our story follows wisecracking bard Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a former member of the do-gooding Harpers whose life was uprooted after a Red Wizard murdered his wife. Turning to crime to support his child, Kira (Chloe Coleman), Edgin teams up with potato-eating barbarian Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), self-doubting sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), and smarmy companion Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) to swindle their way through life. That’s until Edgin takes on a mission to retrieve a resurrection tablet that could potentially bring his dead wife back to life. Of course, everything goes terribly wrong, and Edgin and Holga wind up getting caught and being sent to prison for two years, with Forge taking Kira to raise as his own, refusing to tell her the truth about why her father was jailed.
After succeeding in a hare-brained scheme to escape from their icy incarceration, Edgin and Holga arrange to finish what they started, only to discover that their old pal Forge has betrayed them, weaseling his way to have become the sniveling Lord of the city of Neverwinter for its riches. As it so happens, Forge had risen to power after teaming up with a mysterious dark witch Sofina (a creepy Daisy Head), who was partly responsible for the pair’s imprisonment. At the palace, Edgin also learns that Forge had been attempting to turn his daughter Kira against him, poisoning her mind with ideas of her father having abandoned her for treasure. With Forge having no plans to return Kira to her broken father, Edgin and Holga decide to reunite with Simon — and enlist the aid of a shapeshifting tiefling druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) — to break into Forge’s stronghold to reclaim the resurrection tablet and prove to Kira that he’d been lying to her all along.
This isn’t the first time Dungeons & Dragons has been given a big-screen translation, the first being the 2000 movie starring Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans, which was a bit of a bust, along with its straight-to-DVD sequels. What works here, however, is that writers Daley, Goldstein, and Michael Gilio (the story is credited to Gilio and Chris McKay) admire all things D&D and aim to give audiences an experience that mirrors the movie’s real-life counterpart, the game’s silly audacious spirit apparent throughout the film’s 134-minute runtime. Moviemakers never lose sight of the outrageous sandbox they’re playing in, doing first-class world building and having the confidence to ‘go weird’ without ever leaning into satire — a stellar treasure hunt in a subterranean lava cavern springs to mind, which features an overweight red dragon.
Furthermore, there are references to locations, magical items, and creatures galore, such as Displacer Beasts, an Owlbear (which shapeshifter Doric transforms into), transparent human-absorbing gelatinous cubes, and a toothy mimic that’s taken the form of a treasure chest. With that said, non-D&D gamers will find plenty to enjoy too as Daley, Goldstein, and Co. sharply subvert expectations whenever possible and infuse their characters with interesting personalities and backstories, Honor Among Thieves very accessible and immensely entertaining. And just like those elongated tabletop RPG campaigns, the plot is littered with dozens of obstacles and ‘side quests,’ and nifty trinkets the gang use along the way; there’s a mid-movie mission that involves chasing down a magic helmet that can de-power tough enchantments, and some inventive action with a Hither-Thither Staff, a handy item that allows users short-range teleportation.
Most of the visual gags and comedy hit; from a scene in a barbarian graveyard that oozes with Sam Raimi’s signature Army of Darkness-type charm mixed with Monty Python’s dry humor (look out for Aussie comedians Aunty Donna who provide the vocals for three of the re-animated corpses in the Aussie version), to a crazy moment when our bard, Pine, belts out a tune via a hologram, which glitches and melts in front of our very eyes. The CGI and practical effects are all top-notch, the movie’s 151 million USD budget clearly up on screen. A visual highlight is a stunning one-take tracking shot that follows Sophia Lillis’ Daric as she escapes from Forge’s castle and transforms into all manner of beasts — this scene’s a showstopper. The Celtic-inspired sounding score by composer Lorne Balfe, Black Adam (2022), is also terrific and would probably ‘go off’ in the presence of your hobbit mates.
Chris Pine leads his band well and is excellent as Edgin Darvis, an ideas man with a charismatic self-mocking charm. Michelle Rodriguez kicks butt as Holga, a badass axe-swinging warrior exiled from her tribe — extra marks for her authentic unshaved armpits. Sophia Lillis is similarly great as the woodsy druid Daric, who’s got a distrust of humans; while Justice Smith has fun with his not-so-sorcerer supreme. Hugh Grant is utterly brilliant as the chatty, slippery, rogue Forge and is clearly relishing the role, chewing the scenery — between this and 2017’s Paddington 2, someone should start a petition to have Grant play one of these jovial villains every couple of years. Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page is also a stand out as the movie’s NPC (Non-Playable Character), Xenk Yendar, a virtuous paladin who escaped the Thay (Red Wizards) and, as a result, ages differently. With lines like “just because a sentence is symmetrical doesn’t make it not nonsense,” Xenk is probably the most D&D-esque character in the entire film. Lastly, look out for a ‘small’ cameo that could potentially be one of this year’s funniest and best!
The tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons is all about friendship and camaraderie, which the entire Honor Among Thieves team understands and captures nicely, the movie a crowd-pleasing action fantasy that’s sure to remind patrons of how much fun popcorn cinema can be. If you look at review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, it’s clear that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is already a critical hit. Let’s hope it’s a commercial success, too, so that we can continue this campaign and spend more time with this delightful crew of motley adventurers.
4 / 5 – Recommended