Starring: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis & Hugh Grant
Directed by: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: March 2023
Running Time: 134 mins
Synopsis: A charming thief and a band of unlikely adventurers undertake an epic heist to retrieve a lost relic, but things go dangerously awry when they run afoul of the wrong people.
Thanks to its inclusion in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, awareness of Dungeons & Dragons is arguably at an all-time high, with concepts such as Vecna and Demogorgons now part of mainstream pop culture. Capitalising on this increased interest in the table-top RPG and its characters, Paramount Pictures announced a big-budget cinematic release – the first for the franchise since its box-office bomb in 2000 and subsequent direct-to-DVD movies. Set in the Forgotten Realms setting from the game, but without a fixation on the game’s dense lore, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves adopts the same action-adventure template seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making it extremely accessible to casual viewers. One pull quote I read described the film as “Guardians of the Galaxy meets Lord of the Rings” and I think that’s an accurate elevator pitch for the film.
The mismatched quintet of heroes feels extremely reminiscent of the Guardians of the Galaxy misfits, with Chris Pine doing his very best Chris Pratt impression as the charming leader of the gang. Despite his frequent quips and awkward lute-playing, Pine’s character Edgin has a surprisingly emotional character arc involving his daughter and his late wife that forms the core of the movie’s mission. Michelle Rodriguez is extremely well-cast as Holga, the tough female barbarian with a heart of gold, building strong platonic chemistry alongside Edgin. The standout character for me was Sophia Lillis’ Tiefling shapeshifter, who was easily the best designed character, but also had some great scenes as she changed into her Owlbear form. Justice Smith does great as Simon the neurotic wizard, undergoing some real growth as the film goes on. I was surprised at how brief Regé-Jean Page’s role was in the film, given his prominence in the advertising, as he effectively just cameoed in a few scenes in the middle.
The villains of the piece were equally as well-cast with Hugh Grant nailing the foppish rogue with no morals or qualms about mass-murder, just as long as he doesn’t have to witness it himself. I also enjoyed Daisy Head’s performance as the Red Wizard Sofina, particularly the scenes where she contorted her face – whether it was when she spotted the wild-shape eavesdropping, or when she morphed out of her disguise. There were also plenty of familiar D&D creatures to be seen; obviously there were dragons, but also Owlbears, Displacer Beasts, Mimics, Intellect Devourers and Gelatinous Cubes. The majority of these creatures were seen in the Hunger Games-esque gladiatorial games where the heroes must run through a labyrinth maze to reach safety in the centre. This sequence was the highlight for me, and accurately captured the dungeons aspect of D&D, whilst the journey to the Underdark represented the dragon’s side.
Structurally, the film suffers from a slightly exposition-heavy first act with Chris Pine narrating a lot of the events prior to the film during his pardon appeal. While this does lead to a fun recurring joke with chancellor Jarnathan, I found it a bit of a slow burn and it wasn’t until the sequence where Doric had to escape Neverwinter castle by shapeshifting into a variety of animals that I fully embraced the film. Looking back as a whole, I can see why they opted to tell the story ‘in media res’ and through flashbacks, but I think I would have preferred a traditional chronological narrative for that opening act and the theft of the Horn of Beckoning Death – particularly when it came to establishing the pre-existing relationships between Edgin, Holga, Simon & Forge. That said, in hindsight, I think the film works well and the quirky narrative choice suits the irreverent tone of the film – it just took a bit of getting used to in my initial viewing.
The plot of the film feels reminiscent of a real game of D&D with a number of side-quests showcasing the strengths and weaknesses of each character before returning to the main plot at the end. While the heist element does drive the overarching story, it was fun to see other elements of D&D make it into the film, such as the fun ‘social encounter’ in the graveyard where the heroes must interrogate a number of corpses to learn the location of the mysterious helm of injunction. This feels like something that would be improvised in a real D&D game by a mischievous Dungeon Master, and it also allowed for the film’s sense of humour to be on display. There were multiple moments throughout the film where I laughed out loud, thanks both to the sharp script and brilliant performances of the leads. Despite these moments of humour, the film never descended into a parody of the genre and it treats the world of D&D and its characters with respect. The jokes feel earned and not at the expense of the fandom, which is refreshing.
There were plenty of fun action sequences, and I was impressed with the kinetic camera direction often utilised – my favourite involving the Hither-Thither Staff, and the way that it becomes a crucial part of their plot to infiltrate the vault. The sequence where the heroes had to smuggle a painting onto a moving cart was extremely fun to watch and made my head spin with the gravitational physics on display – borrowing plenty from the Portal videogames. It was also interesting to note that the film stayed far away from any references to the D&D elements seen in Stranger Things – in fact, the only real reference I could see was the way that Auric fell into the portal and how that mirrored the entrance into the Upside Down seen in Season Four. I think it was a wise choice to avoid introducing new versions of the Demogorgon, Mind Flayer or Vecna, given that the ones in Stranger Things are unique to that mythology and share little in common with the original D&D variants, aside from the names. The creatures that they did choose to use were also iconic, and the quirkiness of a ‘chubby dragon’ or a ‘killer treasure chest’ helped distinguish the series from more serious fantasy franchises such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
Once it overcomes its exposition-heavy world-building at the start of the film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves quickly becomes an enthralling adventure that accurately recreates the table-top role-playing experience onto the big-screen; with plans consistently going afoul and lots of improvisational moments. At times it reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially with the constant momentum of the plot and its action sequences, but the film owes its biggest debt to the original Guardians of the Galaxy film, following much of the same template to endear the audience to its quirky characters.
With plenty of standout action set-pieces sprinkled throughout its 134 minute runtime, the film plays to a broad audience unfamiliar with the specific history of Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms. There’s plenty of Easter eggs and references (including a neat nod to the heroes of the classic 80’s cartoon) but the film wisely adopts a superficial stance when building its world, rarely delving beneath surface level when it comes to introducing concepts such as magical spells, organisations and even the geography of the world. This isn’t a dense fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and instead offers a more accessible toe-dip into the warm waters of Dungeons & Dragons for those who’ve only heard of it through Stranger Things.
Score – ★★★★
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Amazon UK.