Dungeons & Dragons Honor Among Thieves review

Inconceivable! Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is actually good

3 out of 5 stars

What made Dungeons & Dragons so unadaptable as a concept for fiction for so many years was also what made it so appealing as a tabletop roleplaying game: it’s a universe, not a story, so even if you want to make it as broadly palatable to as wide an audience as possible, you’re still faced with a nearly-endless amount of possibilities. With an array of critters, character classes, towns, races but no real central recognizable characters or narratives, the universe stood to be used in just about any way imaginable — which is exactly what happened with the misbegotten 2000 adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Justin Whalen. 

It’s mainly the failure of that previous film that slowed down attempts at a new adaptation. Now that audiences have been slowly but surely weaned onto complex fantasy universes and world-building through the runaway success of Game of Thrones and, more broadly, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is plenty of space for Dungeons & Dragons, which is nothing if not a whole prepackaged universe bible for the taking. 

This nevertheless does not solve the fundamental problem: what would a Dungeons & Dragons movie be about? When there’s no beginning to speak of, you can start anywhere — and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves does just that, essentially taking the form of your average roleplaying quest in which a party of characters with disparate skills are tasked with finding some kind of amulet or whatever. 

Charming rogue Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) wasn’t always a thief, but things took a turn for the criminal when his wife was killed by a Red Wizard and he was forced to turn to thievery to support his daughter Kira. Living with his friend Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a barbarian exiled from her community for an illicit love affair, Darvis lives a life of victimless crime until the quest for a tablet that could resurrect his wife goes awry and he is jailed. 

While Darvis is in jail, Kira’s care falls to Darvis’s former partner, a conman named Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) who has somehow conned his way into becoming the powerful Lord of Neverwinter. Fitzwilliam spreads the lie that Darvis and Holga are simply out for filthy lucre, tries to turn Kira against them and attempts to have them executed, therefore cementing him as a real bad guy. Accompanied by an incompetent magician (Justice Smith) and wily shapeshifter (Sophia Lillis), Darvis and Holga break out of jail and set out not only to rescue Kira from Fitzwilliam but also to find the resurrection stone.

dungeons & dragons honor among thieves review
Justice Smith, Chris Pine, Sophia Lillis and Michelle Rodriguez in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

If this sounds like a bunch of impenetrable hogwash designed to preach exclusively to the converted, one of the great surprises of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Amongst Thieves is that it manages to weave copious amounts of fantasy mumbo-jumbo and exposition into a fairly cohesive and accessible whole. Though it’s obvious that die-hards will find plenty to enjoy in Easter eggs that flew way over my head (the amount of critters glimpsed in the corner of the screen approaches Star Wars cantina scene levels), Honor Among Thieves never feels overloaded. Taking more than a few cues from successful franchises (especially Guardians of the Galaxy), it nevertheless manages to set itself apart by cultivating its own tone and sense of humour.

Directors Jonathan Goldstein (not that one) and John Francis Daley’s background is almost exclusively in comedy, and the premise of the film suggests that a barrage of “well… that happened” and other Ryan Reynoldsisms awaits. To my great surprise, the film both takes itself rather seriously and trades in a kind of lightly ironic humour that doesn’t really rely on one-liners and anachronistic free-association. (By that, I mean no one does the Gangnam Style or refers to Instagram or whatever fourth-wall breaking one might expect from a movie that’s not fully confident in its high-fantasy premise.) Goldstein and Daley take this seriously without taking it seriously, landing somewhere closer to Ron Howard’s Willow than deathly serious fantasy outings of recent years or overly quippy superhero movies. 

What’s doubly surprising about Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is that it’s an exceedingly well-made and original blockbuster — though obviously not devoid of the type of CGI chaos one has come to expect from studio tentpoles at this level, it’s also full of animatronics and practical effects that give the universe some unexpected heft and texture. When a half-man half-bird creature starts to move and you realize there’s an actual person under there rather than a stuntman in a green leotard, it goes a long way towards building a flesh-and-bone universe. Long, complicated tracking shots abound, and many of the action scenes are constructed with a clarity of purpose that’s been more and more absent in movies of this breadth and scope in the last few years.

For all of its good qualities, however, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves does have a fairly fundamental flaw: it relies heavily on its rich potential for exposition. Every helmet, dagger, amulet and tiny burlap sack full of magic powder comes with an explanation of its myriad powers, advantages and disadvantages; no location exists without a bit of harrumphing about how mystical and magical it is. The filmmakers seem keenly aware of this, mind you; at a few moments, they even poke fun at the clunky mechanics of the game by applying tabletop rules to a real-life situation. Nevertheless, there are several chunks of Honor Among Thieves that nearly grind to a halt as its cast barrels through a level of exposition heretofore unseen at this level of blockbuster filmmaking.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves remains a pleasant surprise on nearly all levels, from the game performances of its cast to its refreshing earnestness towards the familiar narrative material. That the film plays essentially all of its most out-there moments straight without a wisecracking sidekick breaking the fourth wall to let us know just how weird what we’re seeing is remains a bit of a minor miracle. It’s not the most immersive experience if, like me, you’re suffering from overall blockbuster chaos fatigue, but the very fact that this nearly impossible project is this successful at what it sets out to do is hard to deny. ■

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (directed by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 31, and is streaming now in Canada on Netflix.

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