Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a welcome reprieve from the shallow, overly-commercialized franchise epics that saturate contemporary moviegoing. It is a film likely to sneak up on audiences who will expect the tired action-adventure formula of the past decade and instead walk out of the theater having witnessed a movie with finely choreographed fight scenes, clever uses of special effects, and a surprisingly witty script. Borrowing from the Hasbro product’s story, co-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who wrote the script with Michael Gilio) create a vibrant world with characters who are empathetic and fun to watch. Unlike some of its contemporaries, nothing about the film feels like a cheap money grab. This is an admittedly low bar that Dungeons & Dragons clears by miles.
The film stars Chris Pine as Edgin, who finds himself in jail after heading a band of outlaws. Edgin’s thievery led to the death of his wife years before, and he will not rest until he makes it right. Edgin shares a cell with Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), the crew’s fiercest warrior. They have a brother-sister relationship and co-raised his daughter—the pair escape and set out to find a tablet to bring his wife back from the dead. Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) lives with Forge (Hugh Grant), an ex-crew member who has since become the Lord of Neverwinter. When Edgin and Holga visit Forge to retrieve Kira and the tablet, betrayal ensues. Edgin and Holga once again flee as fugitives, and they devise a new plan to restore their family.
The duo begins to assemble a new team. Their band includes Simon (Justice Smith), a struggling sorcerer who hopes to prove himself on this mission. The druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), whose forest enclave is threatened by the loggers of Neverwinter. And Xenk (Regé-Jean Page), a mighty paladin who guides them through treacherous caverns. Dungeons & Dragons avoids the mistake many similar films make of introducing new characters but never giving them meaningful screen time. These performers each have moments to show off their powers and respective arcs.
In a year where large Hollywood brands like Marvel continue to receive criticism for cutting corners on visual effects, it’s nice to see a movie like Dungeons & Dragons that gets it just right. A scene with Doric, in particular, comes to mind. As a druid, she is able to shapeshift into any animal. She employs these powers as a scout, dodging arrows and swords and making her way about the city of Neverwinter. The filmmakers employ effects to create a visceral experience for the viewer that remains integral to the plot: Doric’s drive to save her people. Effects become vehicles for empathy.
The film offers a perfect blend of serious moments, hypnotic fight sequences, and some of the funniest scenes you are likely to see at the movies this year. Pine delivers one-liners with impressive skill, showcasing his abilities as a comedic actor. Rodriguez, too, with an assist from a famous actor in a surprise cameo performance, sells a wonderfully hilarious gag. Viewers should appreciate the ways in which the film bucks the trend of “cringe” humor. You know the type: the “haha, look at how crazy this movie we are making is” brand of comedy that is actually just an attempt to present bad filmmaking as a quirky, deliberate style. There are no cheap laughs here.
Though Dungeons & Dragons offers a predictably satisfying ending, one of the film’s other great joys is that it does not feel as though it is merely living for the sequel(s). Sure, sequels are inevitable. But the film does not feel unfinished in the way that so many other franchise films do; we are not left with a wanting work so that we feel that we must buy a ticket for whatever comes next. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest thing about Dungeons and Dragons is what it is not; the way it subverts our lowered expectations. In an era of some truly awful stuff, the film plays like a roadmap for what works of this kind can be.
Even the most casual moviegoer will know that 2023 is shaping up to be the year of Brand Cinema. There are the business empire biopics: Air, Blackberry, Tetris, and movies like 80 For Brady, which serves the Tom Brady brand by telling the story of his greatness under the guise of a heartwarming tale of friendship. Also, the product pics, like Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming Barbie, and Flamin’ Hot, the story of the popular Cheetos flavor. Increasingly, it seems that movies are becoming commercials we pay to see.
If more flicks “based on a company’s product” are on the horizon, we can only hope that they are as inventive as Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is currently in theaters. Watch the film’s trailer here.
Related Topics: Adventure, Fantasy