DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOUR AMONG THIEVES (2023)
A charming thief and a band of adventurers embark on an epic quest to retrieve a lost relic, but things go awry when they run afoul of the wrong people.
Based on the famous tabletop role-playing game, which was itself inspired by J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, it made sense that New Line Cinema tried to make Dungeons & Dragons into a franchise as Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy was poised to debut. Why not dominate this new realm of imagination on two fronts? But while LOTR went on to become an Academy Award-winning blockbuster saga that helped “geek culture” go mainstream, Dungeons & Dragons (2000) was a forgotten and embarrassing footnote. Two worse sequels followed in 2005 and 2012, meaning D&D is still thought of as the domain of nerds throwing six-sided die and painting little plastic figurines. Until now…?
It makes sense Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves take a different approach to the aforementioned films, and even the 1980s cartoon series begging for a faithful adaptation of its own. Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, this new D&D film essentially brings Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)-style irreverence and modern humour to the table —pardon the pun. The filmmakers previously worked on Game Night (2018), coincidentally another game-based comedy, and it proves a masterstroke to combine D&D iconography with Guardians-flavoured chemistry and a silliness that evokes Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). There’s even some Shrek (2001) inspiration in the depiction of the villain and aesthetic.
Our ostensible hero is handsome harpist Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), whose wife was murdered, leaving him to raise their daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) by himself— well, with a bit of assistance from friend and barbarian Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez). Edgin and Holga turned to crime to provide for young Kira, recruiting a band of thieves that included sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), conman Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), and the mysterious Sofina (Daisy Head). But during a daring attempt to steal the ‘Tablet of Reawakening’, which could magically resurrect Edgin’s dead wife, he and Holga are captured and imprisoned for two years. The film itself starts with Edgin escaping captivity during a probation hearing in a high tower, only to realise his daughter was taken under the wing of his old friend Forge and brainwashed against him. So can Edgin and Holga form a new team to find the Tablet of Reawakening and restore the Darvis family while convincing Kira her adopted father has fed her lies?
There’s a surprising amount of meat on the bone of Honor Among Thieves, in terms of the narrative and relationships. The quest-based plot is straightforward, but everything benefits from how the screenplay delivers fresh and subversive angles on old ideas. For example, the lead is a middle-aged dad and there’s no romantic angle to his friendship with Holga, despite how they’ve been co-parenting for many years. It’s always good to see fantasy stories reflect more contemporary family dynamics, eschewing the more obvious concept of parents saving their imperilled child. It’s also fun that the heroes are written as scoundrels in the vein of Robin Hood and his merry men, more than brave knights or warriors. Perhaps this was due to its Guardians of the Galaxy inspiration, as those Marvel characters are misfit space pirates who learn to use their talents to benefit others less fortunate than them, but it’s appreciated nonetheless.
Chris Pine’s career has been interesting but frustrating since he came to wide attention with Star Trek (2009) playing a young Captain Kirk. That film’s two sequels didn’t maintain the quality we expected from them, and the fourth Trek has been stuck in development hell for years, at the time of writing, but Pine’s other major roles are in films that looked good on paper but didn’t work in practice (Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, A Wrinkle in Time). It’s interesting that arguably his best non-Trek role has been in the two Wonder Woman films, where he did a fantastic job elevating Gal Gadot’s performance with subtle support and charisma.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves hands Pine the chance to get his own franchise off the ground, by casting him in the Chris Pratt mould as the leader of a ragtag group of outsiders, and it certainly deserves the chance to flourish. The box office was disappointingly muted (it grossed $208M from a $150M budget), but the reaction was so positive I hope the studio risk making a sequel that could build on this good feeling. I call it the Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) effect.
The ensemble of Honor Among Thieves is another highlight, as there’s a great mix of reliable veterans and up-and-comers. Michelle Rodriguez isn’t doing too much we haven’t seen from her before, but she’s fun as a maternal barbarian and her fight sequences are fantastic. Hugh Grant is starting to rely on his Paddington 2 (2017) shtick a bit too much recently, tweaking his signature ‘posh stuttering English gent’ persona into more camp moustache-twirling villain roles. But it still works here and he’s good value as Forge, who was perhaps written with Trump in mind because of how he’s hoodwinked everyone into making him an all-powerful lord.
Justice Smith (Detective Pikachu) is engaging as a half-elf sorcerer whose magic often goes awry, and he enjoys a nice rapport with Sophia Lillis (It) as a tiefling druid called Doric who can shape-shift into different animals. Regé-Jean Page (Bridgerton) is also amusing a slow-ageing paladin called Xenk who guides the gang through the eerie Underdark realm, although he’s weirdly not as prominent as anticipated.
While there are impressive VFX and thrilling action sequences (the best being Doric morphing into different creatures to escape a castle), the focus of the film is never on pure spectacle. There are great stunts and slick moments of CGI, but the story never feels like it’s stopped so audiences can gawp at something expensive. Things feel more in service of the characters and places they go, so the most memorable moments are lines of dialogue or a well-constructed idea poking fun at fantasy tropes and the inherent silliness of this world. My favourite scene is the most Monty Python-inspired of them all, as the team has only a few opportunities with which to interrogate a revived corpse and keep messing up their lines of questioning.
Perhaps the best compliment one can pay to Honor Among Thieves, speaking as someone with only a childhood loose knowledge of D&D, is that it successfully communicates a sense of play and imagination. It primarily takes character types and location names from the game’s lore, but the storyline itself often feels half-improvised like the game naturally is. And as “Dungeon Masters”, the filmmakers do a terrific job servicing all the “players” and giving everyone enjoyable things to say and do throughout. It’s a mix of many things, old and new, but the cocktail tastes surprisingly fresh. It just feels good to have a big-budget film that isn’t taking itself too seriously, doesn’t require any homework beforehand, and knows to put the emphasis on the performances over the visuals.
USA • CANADA • UK • ICELAND • IRELAND • AUSTRALIA | 2023 | 134 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves arrives on home video with a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray boasting a 2160p picture in 2.39:1 ratio. There’s Dolby Vision (or HDR10) includes, and this does a great job translating the digitally shot image to your television screen. The mix of light and shadow is incredible, specular highlights really pop, and the level of detail is beautiful to notice in tiny engraving and carvings.
Dolby Atmos is thankfully provided too, which expertly balances the dialogue and surround sound effects with Lorne Balfe’s music score. The levels are well-adjusted and the action sequences enjoy a welcome boost from the extra height in the sound mix, with plenty of bass when it matters.
directors: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley.
writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley & Michael Gilio (story by Chris McKay & Michael Gilio; based on the ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ games by Hasbro).
starring: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis & Hugh Grant.