Arguably one of the most influential role-playing games in popular culture from the last fifty years, and the videogame industry would have looked very different without it, Dungeons & Dragons is the archetypal geek pastime and its initial simplicity allows anyone into its worlds of wizards, monsters and fantasy. Those dice-rolling adventures are bound only by the limits of its players imagination, but for some reason this (so far) has only resulted in a cheesy, yet fondly remembered, Eighties cartoon series and an utterly catastrophic film adaptation featuring a hammed-up Jeremy Irons and a supporting cast including Richard O’Brien and Tom Baker. But in a post-Tolkien, post-Game Of Thrones world, is there still a place for it?
Clearly, the likes of Lord Of The Rings and George RR Martin’s epics have demonstrated a massive appetite for fantasy worlds, as long as they’re well crafted. But it’s also a crowded marketplace, and if there are any lessons to be learned from both the successes and failures of those fantasy properties that have captured public imagination since “DnD” rolled its first dice, then it’s surely that compelling characters, imaginative imagery and clean, unfussy plotting are key to unlocking a successful adventure.
A typical escapade features a party of adventurers, each with a unique skill or ability, on a quest for a particular objective, with several quests forming an overall campaign. In Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley andMichael Gilio sensibly take the opportunity to assemble their party gradually, starting with Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez). They’ve spent two years in prison for attempting to steal a resurrection tablet that would restore Edgin’s late wife, and on escaping they discover it’s in the hands of their former associate Forge (Hugh Grant). Forge has also become guardian to Edgin’s daughter Kira, but has been somewhat economical with the truth to her about Edgin’s actions and intentions, so now the latter needs to gather a group that can not only restore his wife to the living but also reunite his family.
This company may not be the best of the best, but they’re available. Their hopes rest initially on Simon (Justice Smith), a sorcerer who’s still attempting to work out how sorcery works, and Doric (Sophia Lillis), a Tiefling druid who can assume the form of a variety of animals. They also seek the the assistance of Xenk (Regé-Jean Page), a paladin who survived a slaughter by evil Red Wizards. They have to battle not only the machinations of Forge, but also the might of Sofina (Daisy Head), one of the same Red Wizards who’s now in league with Forge but has her own agenda.
That first objective for this adaptation, compelling characters, is easily ticked off. Edgin and Forge are two sides of the same coin, both roguish charmers but with just enough difference in their moral codes to have taken vastly different paths, but both Pine and Grant had clearly spotted the potential to have fun in their respective roles. Simon provides more physical humour with his fumbled sorcery attempts, while Doric gets to be the group pragmatist, deflecting Simon’s mild amorous advances while questioning exactly what a harper is and just what Edgin brings to the group, other than some fancy lute-playing. Xenk’s arrival offers a further character dynamic, his almost absurd literalness played laser-straight by Page but the script isn’t afraid to mine it for some much-needed silliness.
The second goal is also well managed, with a confident visual style from Goldstein and Daley. While their previous work as directors included comedies Date Night and Vacation, they succeed in both giving their fantasy land breadth and depth while wrangling some satisfying set pieces. Whether it’s Holga in a massive beat-down with her barbarian skills or Doric’s repeated transformations in a single tracking shot in an out of a castle, Goldstein and Daley give their adventuring momentum with clean, easy to follow action beats to balance the comedy.
It’s the clean, unfussy plotting where the film takes a little time to settle into its rhythm. In attempting to set us off and running quickly, the flashback introductions don’t quite mine the comedy effectively while also struggling with their explanations (what’s a harper? You need what from the where?) and the dialogue occasionally has the feel of “we must get the hoogelfluff from the wangburrow with the fligsnark!”. Thankfully, almost as if we are watching the plot and dialogue learning in real time, the script senses we’re more concerned with the dialogue and characters than the fantasy plotting, so when the quests refine to the simplified levels of “let’s get the helmet from the dungeon so Simon can do magic”, Honour Among Thieves finds its feet and its rhythm.
The subtitle feels a little redundant, although possibly an attempt to set this apart from what came before, but the film quietly delivers on the promise with a handful of dungeons and periodic appearances of dragons. There are certainly plenty of references to the various previous incarnations of DnD, but anyone who’s ever seen a fantasy film will quickly settle into the confident world building and allow the Easter Eggs to go over their head; a good time should be able to be had by anyone here, though. Throw in a fun cameo and a general sense of never taking anything too seriously, and by the final act the ensemble really hit their stride and the adventure soars. With a bright, bustling score from Lorne Balfe, a cast who seem to be enjoying their own roles as much as each other’s company and a well thought-out, satisfying climax, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves should be just the first for this iteration of the iconic role-playing franchise.