Despite having been a textbook nerd in my early teen years, not once have I played a round of Dungeons and Dragons. Indeed, my exposure to it has been largely through affectionate references to it in television series like Community and Stranger Things – but I’m not entirely sure how it passed me by. It seems like it probably would have been right up thirteen-year-old me’s alley. In watching Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, the latest attempt to get a franchise up and running off the back of the beloved Hasbro property, I often found myself thinking of thirteen-year-old me. It didn’t take long to realise that Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves would have been a film I obsessed over, had I watched it at that time in my life.
Paramount Pictures, who are releasing the film, clearly hope they have a new franchise starter in the vein of Transformers here – name brand recognition, big budget, infinite potential for sequels and spinoffs. They’ve lined up fine emerging talent in the director’s chair in John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, whose Game Night is one of the best American comedies of recent years. They’ve assembled a wonderful cast, a mix of established stars like Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant, and up-and-comers on the verge of a breakout like Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith and Sophia Lillis. Most compellingly, the film arrives at a fascinating period for the modern blockbuster. There’s the sense that the era of superhero dominance is finally, blessedly, starting to wind down, and there’s a big question mark hovering over what might take its place – if anything. Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves feels like a grand pitch, a suggestion that solid fantasy blockbuster entertainment in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean may once again have its day in the multiplex.
It is that immensely successful series that came to mind regularly while watching Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves. Like the first Pirates, Dungeons has a scrappy, underdog feel, while simultaneously being packed to the brim with all the things we go to big, crowd-pleasing entertainment to see – spectacle, inventiveness, thrills, belly laughs, characters we actually give a damn about. How rare it is in 2023 to see these things done well, to feel as though the filmmakers have put in genuine effort, rather than finding the path of least resistance at every turn. The story of Dungeons and Dragons is one that, assumedly, could be crafted during a standard D&D game. Wily bard-turned-thief Edgin (Pine, effortlessly charming), along with tough-as-nails warrior Holga (Michelle Rodriguez, given a chance to further cement her action-legend status outside of the Fast and Furious series), must find a way to save Edgin’s daughter from their turncoat old friend, who has befriended a villainous witch with nefarious plans of her own. This sends them on a quest to find a range of MacGuffins, assembling a ragtag team along the way that includes a would-be mage (Justice Smith) and a shapeshifter (Sophia Lillis).
Witty and light on its feet, Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a breathlessly entertaining piece of old-fashioned blockbuster entertainment thought lost to time. Gamely aided by a stirling cast, it’s the most confident and purely enjoyable franchise-starter in years.
With Game Night, Daley and Goldstein proved themselves to be rare talents that are not only exceptionally gifted comedic filmmakers, but ones with a genuinely cinematic eye, cleverly crafting imagery that supported and maximised the comedy, rather than simply telegraphing it. Dungeons and Dragons makes for a compelling showcase for their talents, mixing genuinely funny comedy with whirling, thrilling sequences of derring-do and fantastical danger. What Edgin’s ragtag team is searching for matters little – instead it is the chance for the filmmakers to flex the series’ muscle, to show off the many details and paths that future Dungeons films could explore further, while still delivering surprise and wonder in heaping portions. Sequences like a thrilling, one-shot escape from the clutches of the (really quite terrifying) witch, in which the shapeshifter morphs into all sorts of different creatures, are dizzyingly clever in their execution. A later setpiece featuring both a dungeon and a dragon manages to be both hilarious and legitimately intense. Daley and Goldstein have rendered the many worlds of Dungeons and Dragons with the obvious care of superfans, and while they don’t entirely circumvent the digital morass of the modern blockbuster, the regular inclusion of practical effects and creature design is a welcome inclusion.
Then there’s the cast, who are uniformly excellent, playing off each other with a hearty sense of camaraderie. It’s that chemistry that fuels the story. Particularly fantastic is Regé-Jean Page as a paladin, a kind of wandering warrior-monk who is sternly and stubbornly heroic to an absurdist degree. His are among the funniest moments of the film – but the filmmakers cannily keep his on-screen presence brief. By film’s end you’re desperate to see more of him. Grant, meanwhile, is playing essentially the same character he embodied in Paddington 2, but he wears the role of campy villain with such aplomb that it feels unnecessary to poke holes.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is most certainly an imperfect film, one that wears its influences – from Lord of the Rings to Shrek to Monty Python and the Holy Grail a little too self-consciously at times – but the infectious joy of the affair ensures that the lasting feeling of watching the film is one of lip-smacking satisfaction, like sitting down to a meal whose flavours you recognise but are especially well-executed. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but never dings the world in which it takes place in a way that feels better-than or blithely ironic. Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a wonderful cocktail of laughs, terror, thrills and make-believe. Take your thirteen-year-old, thank me later.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves in cinemas now.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves
Movie title: Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (Daley and Goldstein, 2023)
Movie description: Witty and light on its feet, Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a breathlessly entertaining piece of old-fashioned blockbuster entertainment thought lost to time. Gamely aided by a stirling cast, it’s the most confident and purely enjoyable franchise-starter in years.
Date published: March 30, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Michael Gilio
Director(s): John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Actor(s): Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy