Let us not prevaricate on this: new Dungeons & Dragons movie Honor Among Thieves is a fun, funny, effects-driven Summer blockbuster. The cast is great, it balances itself nicely between nerdy role-playing game adaptation and mainstream action-comedy, and after years overloaded with superhero flicks and sequels it honestly feels like a refreshing change.
It is understandable that moviegoers might be somewhat wary about it, of course. It was 23 years ago that Dungeons & Dragons was adapted for an audience hyped for The Lord of the Rings, and New Line Cinema tossed a cheap-looking and laughably staged cash-in into the ring. That audience used it like a hit of cinematic methadone; we may have watched it, but we also flinched at the poor production values, silly script (based on the director’s own D&D campaign), and Jeremy Irons (bellowing that ‘blood will rain from the skies’ with such cheesy abandon that I hear the Academy debated taking back his Oscar for Reversal of Fortune). Particularly keen-eyed viewers have even have noticed its two direct-to-video sequels, The Elemental Might and The Book of Vile Darkness – to date the only movie of which I am aware that was based on a role-playing game supplement manual.
Honor Among Thieves gets it all right. The Dungeons & Dragons brand is used to generate brand name recognition, and a handy source of strange monsters and fantasy animals. The action is well-staged and inventive, and takes advantage of the weird creatures to enable scenes that have not been staged before. The narrative is simply and familiar, but the characters are gloriously funny and self-aware. It is the same sort of self-mockery that put a spark into Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and while this rollicking fantasy adventure does not hit those films’ heights it comes laudably close. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein should be proud of the confection they have assembled.
Chris Pine plays Edgin, a swashbuckling hero turned thief, who is imprisoned with the barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) after a heist goes wrong. Escaping to the city of Neverwinter, they find it was their con artist companion Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) who betrayed them. Teaming with the sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), the druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), and the paladin Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page), they embark on a quest to overthrow Fitzwilliam and rescue Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman). The quality of the cast is what cements the entertainment value here. The film does not simply boast very appealing leads in Pine and Rodriguez, but its supporting characters are funny, likeable, and well-suited to the knowing comedy tone. They are placed in a story that is broadly a familiar one, but which is peppered with clever little innovations all over the place. For enthusiasts of Hollywood Summer blockbusters, it is the first must-see of the season.
It leads to one of the central conundrums of blockbuster cinema: surrounded by an ocean of sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, a fresh take provides a much-needed sense of novelty, relief, and excitement – and the immediate reaction to seeing it in the cinema is to hope for another two or three adventures to come. We build these traps for ourselves.