I don’t know about you, but haven’t you been finding that fantasy properties have been getting a little… serious of late? Between the flames and fucking of House Of The Dragon and the stern glances of Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings series, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for big budget fantasy to be fun – unless you count the recent Willow series on Disney+ and that managed to get mixed reviews partly because of a tone that was maybe too silly.
Absolutely nailing the tone and bringing some much needed respect back to the name of the legendary roll playing game is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a movie that not only erases the stink of the godawful 2000 movie with a wave of a wizardy hand, but also makes the thought of a sprawling franchise more beguiling than a love potion.
Seemingly starting right smack in the middle of a campaign already in motion, we are introduced to spy turned thief, Edgin Davis and his barbarian associate Holga as they languish in an ice prison after a daring heist they pulled went disastrously wrong. Life wasn’t always like this for Edgin as he once had a loving wife who was killed by the evil Red Wizards, leaving him to raise his daughter, Kira alone. The original heist saw Edgin, Holga, slippery con-man Forge, self-doubt laden sorcerer Simon and mysterious magic wielder, Sofina attempt to steal an artifact that could bring Edgin’s wife back from the dead, but were foiled when Forge and Sofina pulled a double cross.
Escaping from their imprisonment at their parole hearing two years later, Edgin and Holga find that Forge has not only become the Lord Of Neverwinter, but has raised Kira to believe that her father had abandoned her for the selfish pursuit of riches – something that pisses Edgin off no end. Vowing to free his daughter, he decides to pull off another super complicated heist with the aid of a scrappy team of misfits that’s sees him and Holga re-team with Simon and enlist Doric, a shapeshifting tiefling druid in order to scope out the castle.
In order to gain entry into Forge’s vault – what, they can’t do a little thieving while on their rescue mission? – they’ll need to retrieve a magical helmet that not only sends them on other, secondary quests, but also teams them with Xenk Yandar, a paladin who has all the levity of block of concrete. As their mission gets them into various scrapes involving chatty corpses, overweight dragons and an ever-changing death maze, it soon becomes abundantly clear that it is in fact Sofina and not Forge who this mismatched fellowship should be concentrating on as her true identity of a Red Wizard could spell certain doom for the entire realm.
To cut to the chase, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is an absolute blast that combines the best bits of every kick-ass comedy blockbuster over the last ten years in order to form an adventure that’s sense of humour can only be matched by its boundless energy. Choosing to avoid many of its po-faced peers by taking a swaggering, irreverent tone and diving headlong into a world where giant bird people sit on parole meetings and a burly barbarian has a thing for Hobbits without barely any explanation whatsoever, the movie is virtually impossible to dislike, unleashing waves of charm and self deprecating humour on an audience suspicious of a family-friendly rating. The scrappy, self aware snark the film wields with all the gusto of Holga swinging her axe may initially feel at odds in a story bristling with shapeshifters and cadaverous witches, but when you realise the directors aren’t trying to invoke a Tolkienesque fable at all and instead are aiming at the breezy camaraderie of a late night, banter-filled bout of role playing between close friends, everything clicks together. It’s a work of tonal genius that makes the world utterly relatable in a way that, say, Warcraft wasn’t and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (not to mention the screenwriters) deserve a cask of ale for recognizing that the way to finally crack the worlds of D&D on film is to concentrate less on the worlds and instead give you the feeling of what it’s like to actually play it.
Now, that’s not to say that the filmmakers haven’t created a rich world groaning under the weight of easter eggs and references – most of which flew over my head like a dragon in flight due to me not being an uber fan – but much in the way that Star Wars dropped you into its universe cold and let you catch up, D&D does the same, harmlessly buffering you with piles of exposition that you absorb organically thanks to the broad humour impacting like a weapon of mass distraction.
The cast certainly helps, with Chris Pine’s lead thief exuding waves of charisma at a factor of Captain Kirk despite him side-stepping any overt action completely (aside occasionally bonking someone over the head with his ever-present lute), leaving the real rough stuff to Michelle Rodriguez’s vastly entertaining Holga who makes you wish she’d made more films like this instead of constantly popping up in Fast & Furious sequels. Elsewhere, Justice Smith and Sophia Lillis provide the same kind of comedy angst and isolation they respectively brought in Bumblebee and I Am Not Ok With This, while a magnificently smarmy Hugh Grant fittingly steals all the best lines as his con man made good. However, the movie’s best moments arguably come from Regé-Jean Page’s epically straight do-gooder, who turns what could have been a one-mile character into something of a comedic secret weapon without actually doing anything overt funny whatsoever.
The setpieces – both comedy and action – whizz by while still being incredibly memorable, although if I’m being honest, the comedy is far better than the action. A section where our heroes have to dig up half a graveyard and resurrect half the bodies in order to gain the information they seek is genius and four-dimensional plan to break into a castle by using portals is awesomely resourceful . In fact even that subsection of D&D fans who only are familiar with the bitchin’ 80’s cartoon *raises hand* are lovingly catered too thanks to a hilarious nod to the beloved animated series.
If there’s a problem – and if there is, it’s extremely minor – then it’s that the movie’s villains are stunningly generic, but even then, Daisy Head’s unblinking Sofina is still enough of an unnerving presence to counteract her underwritten plan.
While fantasy properties are hardly virgin territory, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves manages to be a breath of fresh air that also has the benefit of smelling like freshly cut grass (you’ll get the reference once you’ve seen the film) and here’s hoping they’ll roll the polyhedral dice on a sequel sooner, rather than later.
Simply put, everyone involved has ably proved themselves to be worthy of the title, Dungeon Master.