THE STORY – A charming thief and a band of unlikely adventurers embark on an epic quest to retrieve a long lost relic, but their charming adventure goes dangerously awry when they run afoul of the wrong people.
THE CAST – Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis & Hugh Grant
THE TEAM – Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley (Directors/Writers) & Michael Gilio (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 134 Minutes
Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D for short), the fantasy tabletop role-playing game first published in 1974, has undergone quite a cultural rehabilitation in recent years. Once considered the calling card for the nerdiest of nerds who hadn’t grown past the point of playing pretend, the game saw a surge of popularity in the 2000s as popular celebrities like Vin Diesel, Joe Manganiello, Mike Myers, and Robin Williams talked very openly about how much they got from playing the game and has only grown from there. In 2017 an estimated 15 million people played the game in North America alone, and sales increased another 52 percent in 2018. While the hefty rulebook and improvisation-based role-playing do present a barrier to entry for new players, recent entertainments like the Netflix series “Stranger Things” and web series “Critical Role” has turned more people on to the game, with the latter spawning a critically-acclaimed animated series, “The Legend of Vox Machina,” which was purchased for distribution by Amazon Prime after becoming one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever. There was also a feature film released in the year 2000, a notorious critical flop and box office bomb that nonetheless managed two direct-to-DVD sequels in 2005 and 2012.
After years of legal wrangling and creative struggles, we now have “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” to restore the brand’s good name in cinema. As opposed to the 2000 film, this one has a proper cast of actors (Sophia Lillis, Regé-Jean Page, Chris Pine, and Michelle Rodriguez as the party of adventurers, and Hugh Grant as the villain) and a solid, if surprising, choice for the director’s chair: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the minds behind the 2015 reboot of the “Vacation” series and 2018’s very amusing “Game Night.” Mission accomplished. “Honor Among Thieves” is tremendously fun, an action-adventure comedy that pays respect to its source material while never taking itself too seriously.
The story is a somewhat standard quest narrative, which makes sense for an adaptation of the granddaddy of fantasy role-playing games: After joining a society of spies in an effort to help the little guy, bard Edgin Darvis (Pine) makes a mistake that ends up in the killing of his wife. He raises his young daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) with the help of his barbarian friend Holga Kilgore (Rodriguez) before eventually forming a little group of thieves alongside not-so-great sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and accomplished con artist and rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Grant). After an attempt to steal a tablet that can bring someone back from the dead goes awry, Edgin and Holga end up in prison. When they’re finally released, Fitzwilliam ascends to power in the kingdom of Neverwinter and poisons Kira with lies about why Edgin left and what he wanted for their family. Desperate to get his family back, Edgin and Holga put together a new party with Simon and Doric (Lillis), a tiefling druid raised by wood elves who is part of a resistance movement against Fitzwilliam’s rule of Neverwinter. Now, they must band together as a team in order to steal the tablet and Kira back from Fitzwilliam before the Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head) fully enacts her evil plan to raise an army of the dead in Neverwinter.
The plot is hardly surprising, but the charismatic Pine, badass Rodriguez, hammy Grant, and charming Lillis and Smith are all having a blast, as is Page in a scene-stealing role as a paladin who joins the party to help them retrieve an important item they need to accomplish their goal. Everyone brings their comedic flair to the film, and directors/co-writers (with Michael Gilio) Goldstein and Daley keep them all on the same page. The duo keeps the film visually exciting at every turn, with plenty of visual gags and surprising camera movements. They even manage a more impressive version of that wildly ambitious one-take action sequence from “Game Night,” this one following Doric as she escapes a castle while morphing into various animals. Nearly every scene involves some clever twist on fantasy/action-adventure tropes, keeping the film feeling fresh even as it bloats to a needless two-and-a-quarter hours long. The screenplay playfully toys with the rules of D&D, poking fun at how players can mess up by being careless with phrasing or not specifying certain things.
Undoubtedly, “Honor Among Thieves” was made for D&D fans first. There are plenty of classic monsters that make an appearance without being explained (everyone’s favorite sentient ooze, the Gelatinous Cube, plays a pivotal role in one scene, without any explanation of what it is or what it does), and terms like “tiefling” and “paladin” are prominent descriptors that mean little, if anything at all, to people who have never played D&D. But in the full scope of the film, those are little things. The big things that might make people nervous about watching a movie with “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title actually aren’t huge problems. The lore and history of the region are succinctly explained early on, and since the characters are so broadly drawn, we can always keep track of who they are, even if we don’t fully understand what they are. Like the game on which it is based, “Honor Among Thieves” is infused with the welcoming spirit of teamwork and communal play. It doesn’t often feel like we’re watching a dramatization of a D&D campaign but a story built around the character types and settings one would use in a D&D campaign. In short, it’s a two-hour-plus commercial of sorts for Dungeons & Dragons the game. The brilliant part of it is that it never feels like that at all. Instead, “Honor Among Thieves” plays like an old-fashioned fantasy adventure with modern sensibilities, led by a cast who understands that if they’re having fun, the audience will have fun with them. And have fun we do.