The introductions to “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” at the SXSW Film Festival emphasized that they “made this movie for everyone.” There’s clearly a concern that the film may not reach outside the demographic of people who once played or still play the wildly influential role-playing game. And there should be because branding can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it targets a massive fan base already familiar with an IP. On the other hand, a film has to be good enough to break out of that familiarity to reach a wider audience—think of how well “The Last of Us” is playing to viewers who never played the game. So how will fans of Dungeons & Dragons respond to this expensive foray into their favorite fantasy experience? Paramount is rolling a 20-sided die and hoping to get the right number, but the fickle Dungeon Master of Hollywood may have a fatal surprise around the next corner.
The truth is that the game Dungeons & Dragons is often at its best when it’s at its most ridiculously unpredictable and downright silly. Co-writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and co-writer Michael Gilio attempt to recreate that “we need a plan” structure of the game in a script that often feels like it’s making itself up as it goes along. Or pretending to do so. While that’s an ambitious way to approach a fantasy film, it can make for oddly unsatisfying stretches of the final product by eliminating stakes and forcing lightheartedness. The truth is that manufactured spontaneity is almost impossible, and too much of “Honor Among Thieves” feels like it’s unfolding with a wink and a nod instead of being legitimately rough around the edges, in-the-moment, and fresh. There are stretches of “Honor Among Thieves” that have the whimsical chaos of Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness”—including a great sequence involving the talking dead—and the film often recalls the “ragtag team of saviors” tone of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Still, the film often feels like it’s faking what the creators love about the game instead of trying to translate it from one medium to another.
The typically charming Chris Pine plays Edgin Darvis, a former member of a group called the Harpers. After his wife is killed by an evil group known as the Red Wizards, Edgin tries to execute a heist to retrieve an item that can bring her back to life, but he’s betrayed, imprisoned with his BFF Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), a stoic barbarian. In a clever sequence, the pair escapes and discover that Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) has been taken in and lied to by their team’s former ally Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant). The rogue betrayed Edgin and the team in several ways, including partnering with a vicious Red Wizard named Sofina (Daisy Head).
Edgin and Holga have several missions in this D&D campaign: Save Kira, get revenge on Forge, stop the Red Wizards, and maybe find some loot along the way. The mission will reunite them with an unconfident wizard named Simon (Justice Smith), a shapeshifting druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis), and a charming paladin named Xenk (Regé-Jean Page). Like any “team of heroes” movie, these characters each bring different skill sets that the group will need to accomplish their goals, and the writers pepper the film with odd hurdles for the group to overcome, including a clever sequence involving some undead enemies and a chubby dragon in a dungeon.
If it all sounds like it’s more for fantasy gamers than “everyone,” well, it undeniably is. The film is filled with references to D&D—name drops like “Baldur’s Gate” and “Neverwinter” created audible responses during the premiere—but I wouldn’t go as far as to say the film won’t work at all for people who have never made a character for a campaign. Most of the references here will sound like depth for non-gamers who may see more parallels to products like “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Witcher” than their actual source. It’s a film that’s rich in fantasy terminology in a way that feels like its creators affectionately remember creating characters in their mom's basement when they were young. That genuine interest in the lore of D&D may be enough for some people. But what about everyone else?
Affection for a source doesn’t always translate to execution in terms of craft, and the filmmaking here is shoddy. In terms of the flashes and bangs, "Honor Among Thieves" works much better when it focuses on practical effects (or at least ones that look practical—everything is CGI nowadays) and can find a tactile quality that the CGI-heavy sequences lack. When Edgin and his team are waking up corpses to get information, or Sofina is merely scowling in her malevolent makeup, the film is more grounded than when it’s drifting off in magic-driven sequences of people casting spells both willy and nilly. There’s also a lack of world-building in a movie that should be dense with it when it comes to design. Forge’s city looks like a generic fantasy video game setting, and the opportunity to craft interesting backdrops for these varied characters is rarely taken. It feels like a film that's going to age poorly visually.
The cast is reasonably strong, with Pine leaning into the rough charisma I’ve always thought would have made him a massive star in the ‘60s. All of the cast was clearly chosen to play to their strengths, with Grant amplifying his smarm and Rodriguez kicking ass when needed. Relative newcomers Smith and Lillis are effective, too, with the former finding some vulnerability and the latter being consistently engaging as she uncertainly becomes a hero.
What’s most shocking about “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is how little meat there is on these reanimated bones, even with a bloated 139-minute runtime. When a cast of characters runs from plan A to plan B and back to plan A, the constant motion doesn’t allow for much else. Most of this film is “What we do now?” Again, that's fun with friends, less so when you have no control over the answer.
This review was filed from the SXSW Film Festival. "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" opens on March 31, 2023.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)
Rated NR for fantasy action/violence and some language.