Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
There is no table-top RPG more popular than Dungeons & Dragons. It is a game practically equivalent with the concept of table-top RPG, though dedicated gamers might argue there are better ones out there. Long relegated to the domain of “nerds,” it has risen in popularity in the last fifteen years as nerd culture has gone mainstream. It features on the highly popular show Stranger Things, and the popularity of the webshow Critical Role is another reflection of the game’s broad appeal.
If an idea is popular, Hollywood will try to make it into a film. They adapted D&D once before, back in 2000, but the less said about that one the better. The memory of the older one couldn’t help but fill one with trepidation about a new one. A kernel of hope existed thanks to the directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who were also responsible for the excellent Game Night.
Honor Among Thieves is set in one of the major game settings, Ebberon. Featuring a simple heist plot, the film is no masterpiece and doesn’t redefine action-comedy films, but directors Daley and Goldstein infuse the film with plenty of humor and charm, making it a fun, breezy experience. It invokes some of the action-comedies of the late 80s/early 90s with its blend of winking at the concept’s inherent silliness without becoming full-on farce.
The characters are all fairly simple and written in broad strokes. While this means none of them are truly compelling, it does avoid overcomplicated and potentially dull backstories. In fact, backstories are related in a very knowing way, mildly poking fun at how D&D backstories are often told in games. The cast are all spry and spirited performers. Chris Pine is enjoyable as the charismatic knave bard, as is Justice Smith as a meek half-elf sorcerer. Michelle Rodriguez also impresses as the tough barbarian, including shining in one of the film’s cameo scenes. Hugh Grant hams it up just to the right degree and proves quite enjoyable. It is only Sophia Lillis‘s tiefling druid who has little personality or presence. Perhaps the most shining performance is Rege-Jean Page as Xenk Yandar, a paladin. The script is wonderful here, playing Xenk up as the epitome of all that is good and noble, resulting in a series of gut-busting laughs.
The middle portion of the film evokes the feeling of being involved in a D&D adventure as the team descends into the Underdark, an underground world beneath the main one. They travel, try to get past traps, deal with monsters, and find treasure, all with a healthy dose of humor. Predictable perhaps, but still fun, and Page’s character brings great energy to this stretch.
The movie avoids any big exposition dumps. It rolls along, not getting bogged down in explaining the nations, cities, or terms. Fans of Eberron will recognize plenty, but the film seems to know that too much information would be useless to those not already fans of the setting. The tradeoff is somewhat shallow world-building and no clear understanding of what all is going on in the background. This may not matter too much, but it contributes to the feeling that the film is ultimately surface-level.
Those acquainted with the game will enjoy the various creatures, spells, and other bits of lore sprinkled throughout. Jokes play up the nature of certain spells, including a funny moment involving a Speak with Dead spell.
It is these factors that uplift the film despite its simplicity. Daley and Goldstein are consistently clever. The manner in which a villain is defeated, for example, is quite funny and cute, avoiding stereotypical expectations and moments. The movie is able to joke around with what D&D is while avoiding overly farcical moments.
Honor Among Thieves is ultimately a light and fun action-comedy. There is a sprinkling of emotional heart, not enough to ensure that the film won’t be forgotten in a month’s time. D&D players may wish there were more acknowledgements of the universe’s lore, but the light approach hopefully will pay off by attracting a larger audience and inspiring them to check out the game. Honor Among Thieves will likely expand the D&D fanbase as well as providing a fun time at the movies.