Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (2023) Review

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (2023)
Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Screenwriters: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Michael Gilio
Starring: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Regé-Jean Page, Hugh Grant, Daisy Head, Chloe Coleman

Despite being the most consistently popular fantasy role-playing game since its debut in the mid-1970s, a successful film adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons has remained illusive. Now, thirteen years after the last major Hollywood attempt at a D&D film, Game Night directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley roll their d20 hoping to change that with Honour Among Thieves

A ragtag party of reluctant heroes – including quick-witted bard Edgin (Chris Pine), his barbarian platonic partner Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), accident-prone mage Simon (Justice Smith), and shape-shifting freedom-fighter Doric (Sophia Lillis) – undertake a dangerous quest to steal a valuable magical artefact from a former ally (Hugh Grant) and stop a powerful necromancer (Daisy Head) from unleashing an undead horde on the world.

D&D has been given a new lease of life in recent years, particularly among younger players thanks to its prominence in shows like ‘Stranger Things’ and the success of YouTube live-streaming accounts like Critical Role. The new movie successfully connects with fans old and new alike because it not only packs every scene full of creatures, locations and magic from decades of imposingly dense lore (even non-fans may have heard of some of the game’s more bizarre monsters like the owl-bear and the gelatinous cube), but more importantly allows you plenty of time to get to know and love these new characters.

Chris Pine often plays roguishly charming guys and Ed is another of these with added singing (and when the singing doesn’t work, whacking someone over the head with his lute might), but what a lot of people forget is just how funny Michelle Rodriguez can be. Holga is the most formidable warrior in the party by some margin, but her deadpan responses to wisecracks and the slapstick gags that pepper her unbelievably tightly choreographed brawls with armoured goons frequently catch you off guard. Sophia Lillis and Justice Smith have delightful chemistry as two of the potentially most powerful heroes battling trauma and self-doubt and Regé-Jean Page’s self-serious and ultra-literal paladin Xenk Yendar is hilarious in contrast to his quipping allies. It’s amusing to realise just how little Hugh Grant’s 1990s romcom persona needs tweaking to become quite sinister, and Forge Fizwilliam follows hot on the heels of Paddington 2 in giving him another smarmy antagonist we love to hate.

Essentially a heist movie with an elaborate setup involving multiple game-appropriate side-quests, this is light on its feet, exciting and really funny, making an unexpected virtue of the original game being so much about engrossing storytelling. Characters colourfully provide their backstories at the drop of a hat, but usually not just as an exposition dump, whether they aim to make new friends, convince a fantasy parole board of their reformed ways, or as an elaborate distraction from their true purpose.

Goldstein and Daley gave us an incredibly inventive and tense long-take action scene in Game Night with that film’s hapless ensemble being chased around a mansion chucking a fragile Faberge egg between them. Here, they one-up themselves in a sequence that follows Doric rapidly morphing between a series of animal shapes as she escapes a hostile castle, from inside an impregnable treasure vault, through corridors, out a tower window and through city streets. As a side-note, the shape-shifting effects aren’t always perfect but their well-timed use in already dynamic battles makes sure they are always striking to look at. 

Much like in Duncan Jones’ ill-fated Warcraft adaptation, magic in this universe is shown to carry a cost, capable of achieving wondrous feats or causing great harm to yourself and others if misused. It can be a useful tool but only if you’re skilled and level-headed enough, and it can’t overcome every obstacle. Early on Simon is just as likely to cast the wrong spell that will send him hurtling uncontrollably skywards as he is to magic him and his companions out of their current predicament, but as is often the case with stories like this a lot of it comes down to believing in yourself. Everyone has their demons to overcome, their crosses to bear (or owl-bear), but coming together to share their burdens makes their monumental task seem a little less insurmountable. 

For all the fantasy fireworks and zippy exchanges between a likeable group of unlikely heroes, this film also has a big heart to it and really hits you on an emotional level towards the end, particularly in regards to exploring the highly unconventional but tender family dynamic between Edgin, his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman), and Holga. 

As funny as it often is, not every joke in the film lands, like Hugh Grant making entirely too much of a big thing of telling his audience how unexpectedly hot his tea is, or a side-quest involving temporarily reviving the dead for information that drags on a little too long, plus some characters’ arcs and backstories make a lot more sense than others. It’s the final act arena challenge prominently featured in most of the trailers that is probably the least interesting passage in the film, but even this doesn’t outstay its welcome and we get a properly satisfying final fight shortly afterwards. 

Despite a few nitpicks, thanks to its charismatic cast, wit and constant momentum, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a rip-roaring success and one of the best times you’re likely to have at the cinema this year. Video game movies may still be finding the right formula, but more old-fashioned role-playing games could very well provide the inspiration for a whole range of hugely enjoyable films if practiced current and former Dungeon Masters are that way inclined.  

Score: 19/24


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