Thanks to a massive surge in popularity recently with its inclusion in Stranger Things and popular gaming shows like Critical Role, Dungeons & Dragons are arguably more well-known than ever been? Me? I’ve been into it since I was about six or seven, and I would read all my dad’s 3rd edition books and play with the miniatures. I know all the rules and lore. Never for a million years did I ever think I would one day be watching a Dungeons & Dragons film in cinemas, and that it would receive unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike.
Of course, there have been previous attempts, but I think we all know how the 2000 film played out, with Jeremy Irons chewing the scenery purely to pay for a castle he brought and a generic fantasy plot with the D&D name slapped on. This time, it’s very different. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, already renowned for bringing dynamic camera work and pitch-perfect setpieces to their previous comedy Game Night, understand this game. D&D is a sandbox, and whilst there’s lore, you don’t have to follow it. Crucially, there are no set characters or storylines. In order to properly adapt D&D, the tone needs to be adapted. Anyone who’s ever played a session knows that the game is less akin to Lord of the Rings and closer to Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Princess Bride. Characters bicker, plans fail, and everyone is joking around and embracing the silliness. Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves absolutely nails this core concept.
It’s probably the most enjoyable and purely fun blockbuster since The Suicide Squad, a total blast that even non-players will enjoy. Whilst it is very funny, it’s not a comedy and isn’t played so broadly that it descends into farce. Instead, the comedy arises naturally through the characters and story in a similar vein to the Guardians of the Galaxy films or older films such as Indiana Jones. This is anchored by simple but effective character work – Chris Pine, working his way slowly up everyone’s ‘Best Chris’ lists (if he wasn’t already your favourite), carries the film’s emotional core. He’s a thief with a troubled past but isn’t a bad person. His actions were motivated by his love for his daughter, and now seeks redemption. He’s not a fighter or a big tough guy, instead, he uses wits and cunning and natural charisma to solve problems, and when a solution doesn’t work, he tries again. Brilliant stuff.
The subtitle of the film is very appropriate, as this is a heist film through and through. A medieval Ocean’s 11 with magic, a large part of the film is dedicated to the planning and execution of various wonderfully elaborate schemes. I won’t reveal the full storyline of what exactly they’re stealing, but the trailers give a pretty good impression. From an incredible one-shot escape sequence that captures the brilliance of a druid’s Wild Shape to a reverse heist into a moving carriage to a shifting maze sequence, the film is less about fighting and explosions and more about set pieces that organically fit the story, with a heavy emphasis on character-driven action and practical effects. There’s even a classic dungeon crawl segment that’s a very funny riff on D&D gaming tropes, the only part of the film that is a broad parody of the game itself. Rege-Jean Page enters the film as an ultra-serious paladin that’s clearly a riff on overpowered NPCs played by the Dungeon Master, and as soon as he’s done his job, he leaves. Classic Dungeon Master tactics!
With lush location work and a sweeping score, it’s hard not to get totally swept into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of just using generic fantasy tropes, actual established worlds and concepts are brought in from the game, from monsters like the gelatinous ooze, owlbear and displacer beasts to the continent of Faerun and references to Baldur’s Gate and other things that will make fans go “ooooh” and simply be more elements of worldbuilding to new fans. If you’re a D&D fan, you’ll love the shoutouts and the moments where you can pinpoint when a saving throw fails, or the players forget a plot point. It’s a rich film for fans and non-fans alike, where you’ll leave the cinema wanting to google all the references you missed. Sure, the storyline can be a bit cliched, but what D&D game isn’t? And the focus on Chris Pine can leave the other characters feeling a bit less developed, but in a film this busy and vibrant, these are small flaws.
I highly recommend Honour Among Thieves for anyone who wants to forget about the world for two hours and enter a 2000s-style blockbuster world where practical effects and natural charm reign supreme. With the Guardians of the Galaxy making their final bow next month, I would not complain if Dungeons & Dragons pick up the pieces and becomes cinema’s next ragtag team of misfits. I’ll be seated for every sequel, certainly!