In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Tolkien, a world of elves and dwarves and dragons. And the next word was with Gygax, with added dice and lead figurines. If you’re into magical medieval fantasy, a vaguely Hildebrandtian world of pointy ears and hats is the best known image of this genre, infusing all with a touch of twee peril.
Dungeons & Dragons, a board game played with dice and your imagination, has been adapted many times before – an animated series, several mostly bad movies – but the latest incarnation is D&D: Honor among Thieves, a feature film directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (best known for the Spiderman: Homecoming script). They’ve luckily had a lot more to draw from besides the original texts, including the vastly popular world of watching or listening to people play D&D (Critical Role, Adventure Zone) as well as the game’s increased popularity among regular folks following its Stranger Things exposure.
As a Tolkien-loving nerd teen, I was OG D&D all the way, memorizing the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1st edition), judging the dangers of a gelatinous cube, and getting out my graph paper to design campaigns, while studying every page of The Dragon magazine.
Sadly, my career as a DM was curtailed by not having anyone to play with (I was homeschooled and didn’t have any friends.) I did manage to inspire one family member to pick up the dice though, a cousin, and he went deep unto the dungeon. An entire branch of the family founded a LARPing society and to this day maintains an entire village for gaming on their property. My cousin is now a game designer as well as player, co-creator of Mystwood and, according to one bio page, “inventor of the Waystone ‘self-running’ module mechanic.”
Coming from a family of LARPers and with this heritage of D&D in my background, I am happy to note that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has absolutely nothing to do with any of that.
The film doesn’t really go out of its way to remind you it’s based on a game. It’s set in the “Forgotten Realms” world, which I’ve never played and have no opinion about whatsoever. If you didn’t know it had D&D in the title, you’d think Honor Among Thieves was just another fantasy adventure set in a world with dragons, owlbears, shapeshfting druids, barbarians and at least one Elvish clan that’s fighting for its rights.
It’s a sensible angle to approach the material. With Game of Thrones having introduced fire breathing dragons and swordplay into even the most highbrow of households, there’s no need to explain why fantasy needs to be taken semi seriously. Given the popularity of humorous takes like Critical Role, centering laughs is the right way to do it. D&D:HAT is a fun movie, full of quips and oddballs. The rough edges have been sanded down, mind you (not a drop of blood is to be seen despite a lot of swordplay and axe wielding).
Daley and Goldstein (who also wrote the script along with Michael Gilio, a holdover from another layer of development in this film’s long history) have wisely concentrated on characters and used tons of practical effects. The climax involves one on one action and not the tedious armies of cgi critters that sap jeopardy and tension from far too many movies. They’ve also avoided going too Warcraft with an endless parade of elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins. (The Warcraft movie was a big flop, so another smart move there.)
The story follows Edgin Darvis, (Chris Pine), a harper whose role as an undercover do gooder is unrewarding from an income standpoint. It is my sad duty to report that his origin involves a dead wife, killed by a sect of Red Wizards, and tropey as it is, it provides the motivation for what follows. To raise his young daughter, Edgin is joined by barbarian fighter Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), who has been exiled by her tribe.
As the movie opens, this duo is imprisoned in an icy jail and attending a sort of parole board meeting to ask for a pardon. A flashback reveals their crimes: following his wife’s death Edgin turned to thievery and enlisted Holga, magic user Simon (Justice Smith) and con man Forge Fitzwilliam (an oily Hugh Grant) as his crew. However, on their last heist, they were doublecrossed by Forge and Sofina (Daisy Head) a sorceress who has watched way too many smokey eye make-up tutorials.
The quest is simple: get out of jail, find Forge and use a resurrection artifact to raise Edgin’s wife from the dead.
A fantasy quest is a pretty simple macguffin, and over the ages storytellers have used various devices to expand it. The quest can involve a long journey and many side encounters, or, as in this one, all kinds of quests within the quest, with the net effect of turning it into a heist film.
After discovering that Forge is a two-faced bamboozler who has taken over a kingdom and turned Kira against her dad, Edgin and Holga are quickly sentenced to death by Forge’s forces, but manage to escape thanks to Holga’s fighting skills. The new quest is now to break into Forge’s vault and get the resurrection tablet. To do that they need to enlist Simon, who then enlists Doric (Sophia Lillis), a druid who can shapeshift into anything from a worm to a ferocious owlbear. But then they need to find a helmet to open the vaults, and then they have to find a paladin to find the helmet, and so on and so forth.
All these nesting quests keep the story moving along – and allow time to introduce more of the world – but with all these factions and motivations, it does get a little confusing as to who decreed what along the way. At one point Edgin announces he’s fulfilling one of the obligations set on him an hour or so before, and…I had no idea who he was talking about.
The paladin turns out to be Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page) and by god he’s a true NPC! Xenk appears as an extremely virtuous and can-do fighter who helps them get through one stage of the quest and then bids them adieu and good luck. I love this kind of character, a staple in both fantasy novels and gaming.
Meanwhile, there is an array of personal stories to keep the cast busy. Holga makes an attempt to mend her broken marriage, leading to one of the film’s biggest laughs. Simon and Doric dated once but Doric found Simon (quite accurately) lacking in self-confidence. Doric is trying to safeguard her Elven tribe. And Edgin wants to get back his daughter and wife, while trying to atone for not having been the best father all the time.
Interestingly, the film has a bit more of a nod to romance than most potential blockbusters, with several characters motivated by a desire to connect with a partner, something that is totally unspoken in the MCU. However, these interactions remain vestigial and chaste, aside from the shocking suggestion that Edgin and his wife slept (but surely did nothing more) in the same bed. Simon and Doric engage in some awkward and on the nose discussion of whether a second date is possible, but exhibit no chemistry whatsoever. Holga looks longingly at her former spouse, but again it’s played for total laughs.
I understand that physical contact is verboten on screen because we’re playing by the rules of countries that severely censor all their entertainment. Even US audiences are increasingly alarmed by on screen depictions of sex. But there’s a lot of territory between smashing and smooching. I doubt that films that influenced this one, such as The Princess Bride and Willow, would be as fondly remembered as they are without romance. But that’s me! I’m an old geezer who was raised in a more primitive (1st edition) era.
In the end, Honor Among Thieves is a pleasant quest, as quests go. Chris Pine is aging nicely, and, as all the Hollywood Chrises do, becomes the natural leader despite having the least skills. Michelle Rodriguez excels in the Michelle Rodriguez role. Justice Smith is forging a career as the slightly bewildered reluctant hero he also played in Detective Pikachu and a few Jurassic Park movies. Paul radiates saintly virtue as the paladin, and Lillis is fast and feisty. Hugh Grant is fine, reprising his role as a total dick from his red carpet interview appearances.
As mentioned, D&D: Honor Among Thieves seems to be borrowing from films like The Princess Bride and Raiders most of the time, and the comparisons aren’t that favorable. Although the movie is full of funny lines and situations, the timing is a bit sluggish, almost as if it was waiting for the theater laughter to die down. The able cast gives it their all, and elevates the often thin material, and the ending – involving an arena tournament and a vault full of treasure for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – will jerk a potential tear or two from those who succumb to the theater going experience.
As a theater going experience, it is one. The buzz for this movie has been pretty strong, signaling, I believe, that audiences are hungry to go see a fresh amusement that ISN’T a superhero movie. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves isn’t quite up to that buzz, but it’s fun enough to earn the return engagement that everyone is clearly hoping to create.
One craft shout out: the score is by Lorne Balfe, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite film composers. Instead of Howard Shore like soaring horns, it’s more percussive and driving, a much more interesting choice. Along with the closing credits song by Tame Impala, of all people, it’s another way that this classic franchise has been accorded the necessary freshening up for contemporary audiences.
FYI: Edgin the Bard isn’t a harper, he is a Harper–a member of a semi-secret organization in the Forgotten Realms that is dedicated to the preservation of historical relics and to oppose evil forces that threaten the Realms.
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