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THE GOOD, THE BARD & THE UGLY
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (12A)
Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Screenplay: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Michael Gilio
Starring: Rege-Jean Paige, Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez
Review: David Stephens
You can theorise that the recent resurgence in Dungeons & Dragons is due to its exposure in Stranger Things. But it’s been around for so long that there have been regular peaks in interest from the mainstream media ever since its inception in 1974. From the original tabletop game, the franchise has surfaced to grab the general public’s attention in many different ways, including the so-called “Satanic Panic” scare in the early 80s, the beloved cartoon series from the mid-80s, and umpteen video games that have appeared on literally every generation of PCs and video game consoles. And, as Stranger Things proved, the elaborate mythos of the D&D realms lends itself very much to fans of the genre. From the undead to Beholders, to (obvs) Dragons, you can take your pick of ghoulish man-eating creatures, along with every shade of hero or villain you can imagine. So that’s why we’re watching the family-orientated big-budgeter Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, and we’re not going to apologise for that. Especially with all the pre-release positive word-of-mouth. Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the film has an extremely solid cast, including Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, and Sophia Lillis (young Beverly Marsh from IT). Now playing in cinemas across the UK and the USA, we were more than happy to roll the dice with this one.
Opening with an expertly judged prologue in a huge prison built in the frozen wastes of the “Forgotten Realms”, we meet Edgin Davis (Pine) and Holga Kilgore (Rodriguez). Edgin used to be a “Harper”, a Peacekeeper who caught bad guys by spying as a Bard, whereas Holga is an exiled Barbarian. After a heist goes wrong, they’ve spent two years in hard labour but escape just as they are about to be pardoned! Looking to reunite with this orphaned daughter, Edgin finds that she has been alienated from him by the (literal) rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Grant). So he falls back on his thieving skills to get together a band of misfits to perform one last job to make everything right again. Enter unskilled sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) and “Tiefling Druid” Doric (Lillis). Unfortunately, their plan puts them up against the scheming Red Wizard called Sofina (Daisy Head), which means that things could go to Hell in a very real sense.
So what we basically have here is the old trope of a makeshift dysfunctional family overcoming the odds to become a strong unit. A sword-&-sorcery Guardians of the Galaxy if you will. And you know what? It works really well as a fun romp for all members of the family. In fact, it may be a little too intense for some youngsters, hence the 12A certificate in the UK, and the poor little tyke that got REALLY freaked out by a jump-scare in one scene at our screening. In fact, the film feels like a call back to the plethora of fantasy films that we got in the 80s, like Krull and The Beastmaster, rather than a cynical cash-grab relying on the brand alone. It could have easily gone the painful route of the Dungeons and Dragons movie version from 2000 with Jeremy Irons, along with its two sequels. You’ve never heard of them? Yeah, well, there’s a very good reason for that…
Unlike those movies, there’s a real sense of fun present here and a genuine appreciation for the source material. So the bulk of the action centres on Neverwinter, Baldur’s Gate gets mentioned, and they are plenty of character classes and creatures that D&D experts will no doubt recognise, without casual viewers getting bogged down in the mythology. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know your “Owlbear” from your “Mimic”. One of the best elements of the film is that it just says “Hey! This is the world we’re in. Deal with it”. With this attitude, it allows for glimpses of game-board strategies (The High Sun Games) and a lovely visual Easter Egg for fans of the cartoon series. It also supports a screenplay that gently mocks some of the tropes of the playable version, such as overcomplicated rules and nonsensical limits to magical powers. It’s a clever approach, as it lets the narrative get away with such elements as the obligatory Dragon being overweight and unable to fly, rolling around and sliding on its stomach to scoff the pesky pilferers in its den.
Admittedly, it doesn’t always work. Some clunky one-liners hit the floor with a resounding thud and some of the humour is a bit forced. Dialogue gets a bit weird at some points, with modern slang and swearing randomly entering conversations. But for every misfire, there are some real gems. The whole talking-to-corpses sequence is absolute comedy gold and feels like Monty Python’s Return of the Living Dead. Then there’s a dissertation from one character as to how the perfect heroic exit should be performed (“Is he going to go round the rock or over it?”). It helps that the always personable Pine is in charge as the Bard/Harper and he helps to lift the material. The first time he appears onscreen is in a filthy jail cell knitting mittens! Rodriguez is also good value, although she is admittedly doing her trademark character of “tough-as-nails” female lead with a heart of gold, at least she gets some good fights and applies some verbal putdowns to Pine. Whilst there is little character development to speak of, and the other leads get little chance to flex their thespian muscles, they are an easy group to root for.
However, all this might not be quite so entertaining were it not for some standout sequences for a film like this and some nice moments of ingenuity. There is an astonishingly accomplished sequence, which follows a shape-shifting character as they escape from a castle. It emulates a one-take tracking shot as they change from fly to mouse to human and beyond, all in breathless continuous movement. Another scene uses a “portal” device to engineer a plot for accessing an impenetrable vault, which is funny and extremely clever at the same time, even if it is ripping off the “Portal” videogame. Fight scene choreography (mostly with Rodriguez) is also top-notch and well-paced, which is more than we can say about some action movies.
Obviously, with a PG/12A film, you shouldn’t go expecting blood and guts and indeed there is very little of that. But at least the people-munching and background beheading is not dealt with in a patronising or naive way. Check out the Owlbear beating in the last act! It’s not a seminal classic as such, much of the plot follows the usual predictable routes. The moralising is also a little heavy-handed at some times. But overall, this is a great “gateway” genre film, with horror or fantasy fans getting the same enjoyable experience as younger viewers will. And that is a very rare beast indeed. Oddly enough and judging by the initial responses from critics and audiences, this may well be a sleeper hit that could spawn many more genre-tinged D&D projects. And if they’re as good as this one, we won’t complain about that.
A joyous fantasy romp that feels like it’s come from less complicated times and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Sure, some of the humour and plot details feel a little forced and can fall flat at times, but it makes up for this with some superb action sequences, likeable leads, and genuinely funny moments. A nice “gateway” genre film for the whole family.
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