Finally, a ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ movie! Except this isn’t the first time a Hollywood studio tries to adapt the iconic TPRG (tabletop role-playing game) into a feature film. Back in 2000, there was a movie that had been a decade-long passion project for then-rookie director Courtney Solomon. But it was a movie that many people (including myself) chose to forget ever exists in the first place. The reason? It was terrible – low-rent CGI, Jeremy Irons’ glaringly over-the-top performance, and haphazard screenplay, just to name a few. And prior to the screening of ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’, I thought of giving Solomon’s film a second chance and rewatched it. Well, it was as outrageously bad as I watched that movie for the first time twenty-three years ago. Despite ended up a critical and financial failure, the ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ franchise still lives on with not one but two under-the-radar sequels including ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God’ in 2005 and ‘Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness’ in 2012.
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, best known for ‘Game Night’ but were also responsible for that awful ‘Vacation’ reboot, are in charge of the new ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ movie. I never expected them to direct a big-budget medieval fantasy adventure, let alone something as enduringly popular as the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game that has been around since 1974. But the good news is, this directing duo proves to be the right men for the job. They know what it takes to make a hugely entertaining blockbuster reminiscent of how you and your friends have fun rolling the dice and playing the Dungeons & Dragons game.
The story goes like this: Best buddies Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) are both imprisoned but they manage to escape (it’s worth mentioning their escape plan is both crafty and hilarious). We learn that Edgin used to be a Harper and he’s a thief while Holga’s a tough warrior. Edgin has a daughter named Kira (Chloe Coleman), and he trusts his ally Forge (Hugh Grant) – now become the Lord of Neverwinter — would take good care of her after a heist gone wrong. Forge did treat her like his own daughter but he’s no longer the same ally that Edgin used to know him back in the day. Not only he betrayed him but also had Sofina (Daisy Head) by his side, the evil Red Wizard that was supposed to be their enemy in the past.
Long story short, Edgin and Holga set out on a quest to retrieve the Tablet of Reawakening that can resurrect Edgin’s wife and save Kira. They can’t do it by themselves so they recruit the dubious wizard Simon (Justice Smith), whom they used to work as a team before, and another two to join them including the shapeshifting Doric (Sophia Lillis) and paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page).
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Michael Gilio, manage to strike a fine balance between satisfying the fans of the Dungeons & Dragons game and general audiences regardless of having casual, little or no prior knowledge of the material whatsoever. In other words, even with so many things going on in the story, the movie is hardly confusing. After all, it was a streamlined quest-centric fantasy adventure where the heroes journeyed from one place to another to recover certain items (the aforementioned Tablet of Reawakening is one of them), encounter the enemies along the way and accomplish their mission.
The quest itself is where the fun multiplies. There’s an unforgettable elaborate scene seamlessly put together in a continuous take revolving around the shapeshifting Doric; a macabre comedy moment set in a graveyard; the exhilarating and funny chase scene between the heroes and a dragon; and the final all-out battle against the powerful Sofina of the Red Wizard. The action is thrillingly choreographed, complete with fluid and crisp camerawork minus the annoying shaky-cam nonsense. The special effects are top-notch while John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein sure have a keen eye for immersive visuals that make you feel like you are part of the fantasy world with the heroes in ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’.
Coming from a comedy background, the directing duo successfully nailed this part with mostly spot-on snarky humor and I enjoy the condescending nature of these heroes communicating with each other, namely the stoic Holga and the irony-free Xenk that instantly reminds me of Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer in the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies. It also helps that the actors who play the heroes are clearly having a field day here including Chris Pine’s charismatic and sardonic turn as Edgin while Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, and Sophia Lillis all deliver terrific support. Then, there’s Regé-Jean Page, who unexpectedly steals the show each time he appears on the big screen as Xenk, and let’s not forget about Hugh Grant in his scenery-chewing antagonist role as the sneaky Forge.
‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ is lengthy while the shifting tones between some of the movie’s melodramatic core and comedy moments can be jarring at times. Still, such shortcomings are largely offset by the movie’s overall razzle-dazzle entertainment. It was a great start for the ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ franchise and here’s a friendly reminder to stick around for a mid-credits scene before leaving your seat.