Nothing quite typifies the evolution of Hollywood quite like Dungeons & Dragons. The famed tabletop roleplaying board game was first developed into a film property by New Line Cinema with director Courtney Solomon in 2000, and nobody expected it to be a broad four-quadrant hit.
It was a fantasy film based on (what was perceived to be) a niche gaming product for ‘nerds’. It had a budget of US $45 million and its most famous member of its core cast was Jeremy Irons. It looks cheap and ugly. It has a user rating of 1.5/5 on the film-centric social media app Letterboxd and a diabolical 10% on Rotten Tomatoes.
That New Line had the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the pipeline only makes this particular flop (a global gross of US $33.8 million is unheard of today for an effects-heavy IP adaptation) more startling. That franchise, which began with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, marked a change in the reception and perception of so-called geek culture. They were now big business, not just for kids and die-hard fans.
Cut to 23 years later, and eOne (as a part of their acquisition by Hasbro in 2019) now holds the rights to the Dungeons & Dragons game and is collaborating with Paramount.
Sci-fi fantasy movies regularly make a billion dollars at the international box office, so it makes sense that the property should return to audiences in the guise of a $150 million oversized adaptation. John Francis Daly and Jonathan Goldstein’s Honor Among Thieves is primed to set up a new franchise, give devotees of the game the epic they wanted all along, and cultivate a brand-new fandom for the game. Despite my aversion to this sort of thing, I think they’ll succeed in all three.
Campaign one: exposition
Okay, so, in the Forgotten Realm, after the death of his wife, Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) has given up his impoverished life as a Harper and is now a thief. He works alongside Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), amateur sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), a random older gentleman named Forge (Hugh Grant), and even his young daughter, Kira. When they get caught due to some nefarious back dealing, Edgin and Holga soon escape their prison and seek to retrieve a lost relic that was stolen from them.
There’s something about evil forces infecting the land and a graveyard of chatty skeletons, too. Bridgerton’s impeccably handsome Regé-Jean Page shows up playing directly to type as somebody called Xenk. And there’s also something called a druid (Sophia Lillis) who can transform from a fly to a bear in an instant, because why not?
Then there’s some sort of Gladiator-style tournament and a maze and characters with names like Baroness Torbo, Chancellor Norixius, Gorg, Porb Piradost and Szass Tam. Eventually, a lot of stones and bricks get flung about in all directions by something called a Red Wizard, a character who it’s really hard to imagine anybody looking at and not thinking ‘she will eventually murder us all!’ It’s all very silly.
There is a lot of exposition, and much of it told through unnecessary flashbacks that only add to an excessive 135-minute runtime. I am sure fans will love its dense appreciation of lore, but others may find it needlessly exhaustive and far, far too long for a movie that ultimately feels rather slight.
Campaign two: Location, location, location!
Working most effectively in Thieves’ favour is its use of real locations. Unlike other recent visual effect extravaganzas like Avatar: The Way of Water and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Goldstein and Daly use real locations in Iceland and Northern Ireland for a lot of its practical dramatic action. The film is strongest in these instances when it preferences characters trekking across real glaciers and riding horses over real mountains.
Here is where it most replicates the classic adventure vibes of The Lord of the Rings. And while it doesn’t explain why some actors are putting on vaguely British accents and others aren’t, it’s definitely something that sets it apart from yet another Marvel entry where a studio in Atlanta takes the place of some nondescript metropolis street. Here, at least you can tell the actors were in the same room as one another.
This does also have the unwanted effect of frustration when it does dissolve into technological mishegoss. I’m personally a bit sick of seeing glowing orbs, deadly CGI mists and magic bolts shooting out of people’s hands. Despite the budget, the effects don’t carry the sort of awe-inspiring reality that James Cameron, Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan have achieved.
And while the dragons certainly are an improvement over its boxy predecessor, they don’t look all that better from decades prior mid-range studio programmers like Dragonheart and Reign of Fire. There’s also not that many of them, which was a bit disappointing for a Dungeons & Dragons novice.
Furthermore, the big climax takes place in another sadly digital playground of floating bodies and balls of light. It made me want for the earlier simplicity of a location-hopping mirror portal or Michelle Rodriguez’s impressive fight sequences.
In these, the Fast and the Furious star goes up against stunt workers brandishing swords and battle-axes and anything else on hand thanks to Raymond Chan’s fun production design. Amanda Monk’s vaguely medieval costumes are also a fun playground for the actors who at least look the part even if they sound like they’re speaking dialogue directly out of 2023.
Campaign three: forging a future path
I suspect Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will be another big hit for Paramount following this year’s enviable line-up of horror hits Meg3n, Cocaine Bear and Scream VI. There is a modernity here that I grimaced at, but which will no doubt give it the sort of contemporary edge to younger audiences and probably lead to much-desired Paramount+ subscriptions upon its streaming release (plus sequels and the eight-part series that’s also in the works).
Hopefully next time without so much silly exposition.
Three stars: ★★★
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Franchis Daley, Michael Gilio, Chris McKay
Producers: Jeremy Latcham, Brian Goldner, Nick Meyer
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures, Entertainment One
This review was first published on ScreenHub.