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Dungeons & Dragons Honor Among Thieves Review: Swashbuckling Fun

EDITORS' RATING : 6.5 / 10
  • Likable, easygoing adventure
  • A diverse and engaged cast
  • Humor largely lands well
  • Feels entirely too long for no discernible reason
  • Potentially less enjoyable for non-TTG enthusiasts

The last time someone tried to make a theater-first "Dungeons & Dragons" movie, they ended up with the critical and commercial failure that is 2000's "Dungeons & Dragons." Today, it's the sort of pop culture curio that makes a great answer in trivia games but otherwise rings no bells in the minds of the scant few who have seen it. But in the ensuing decades, as nerds secured their victory in the culture wars, the classic tabletop role-playing game grew majorly in stature. This game is no longer spoken of with shrill derision — Joe Manganiello loves D&D, and he's got abs!

But Dungeons & Dragons' new popularity has never guaranteed that a new cinematic adaptation would fare any better than the 2000 film. Lucky for us, directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the pair who wrote "Horrible Bosses" and helmed "Game Night," came to this project with the requisite vision to make "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" more than a cheap cash-in on the resurgence of the classic game. 

Notably, this film doesn't succeed because it's a meta-comedy in the vein of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart's "Jumanji" films. Instead, it's a charming, swashbuckling heist adventure that grafts the inner workings of an average D&D campaign to the rhythms of a fantasy picture. It's not exactly reinventing the wheel stylistically, or rife with soul-quaking drama, but it is the kind of crowd-pleasing, larger-than-life spectacle studios desperately need to get filmgoers off their couches and into the multiplex. 

Sweet, sweet fantasy

"Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" possesses many plot machinations, but their sordid intricacies are the least of the viewer's concerns. All that really matters is the film's airtight set-up, which throws together a ragtag cast that cleverly resembles the average D&D party. Chris Pine leads the group as Edgin, a bard who turned his back on being a hero to better provide for his family as a thief. But that heel turn led to the death of his wife at the hands of a Red Wizard, a subsequent heist designed to bring her back to life, and an ensuing prison sentence with his partner-in-crime and main muscle, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez). The rest of their crew splits up with them behind bars. Middling sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) strikes out on his own, to little success. But Forge (Hugh Grant), a rogue, cons his way into becoming the Lord of Neverwinter, a position of profound power. He uses his powers of deception to turn Edgin's daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) against him, so that he can have a youngling to manipulate in his own image. Edgin and Holga manage to break out of captivity and set about getting the gang back together to free Kira and hopefully retrieve the arcane MacGuffin they were after in the first place. This reunites them with Simon, and also sees them recruit a shape-shifting druid (Sophia Lillis) and a hunky paladin (Regé-Jean Page). 

These heroes encounter all manner of fantasy trappings, from wild mythological creatures to visually arresting magic spells to the realm's complex rules and limitations. Beat for beat, the narrative mimics the flow and process of a game of D&D, with Goldstein and Daley acting as apt Dungeon Masters, pitting each of their key players against their fears and insecurities. As a result, the character arcs are more than a little rote. But this isn't a handful of friends with bespoke character sheets and dice-rolled attributes — it's a film populated with talented actors who bring their own considerable charisma to these cookie cutter archetypes. Pine avails himself the best, bringing everything that made his James Kirk such a stand-out of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek." Rodriguez shines as his straight man foil. Grant has a ball chewing up as much scenery as his stomach will digest, while Smith provides a level of sincerity that is remarkably endearing.

If you're in search of something truly substantive within the genre, you might be better suited to revisiting Peter Jackson's many Tolkien adaptations. "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" delivers primarily on popcorn thrills and playful banter, which is refreshingly less worn-out than the many quippy flicks aimed at the comic-con market. This might sound like damning the film with faint praise, but given the execution, it's a genuinely pleasant surprise.

The true D&D experience

When "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" was first announced, the stench of the 2000 film was still wafting up from trade articles touting the cast and concept. It was inconceivable — to this reviewer, anyhow — that the finished product would even be watchable, much less recommendable. It seemed like it would reek of the same desktop screensaver CGI, "That just happened" banter, and trickle-paced sequential storytelling most new franchising attempts suffer from. But this movie suffers from none of these flaws, which is truly a testament to the directors.

Goldstein and Daley have really leveled up as visual storytellers, putting forth a Herculean effort to give this film some actual scope. For much of the film's first act, scenes begin with sweeping camera movements and interesting attempts at creative staging which serve to make the world feel more lived-in and less like an endless blue-screen oasis of interchangeable medieval backdrops. The costume design and some of the sets also feel more immersive than one would anticipate from a film that sounds, on paper, like a cheap attempt to part some nerds from their hard-earned funds.

The action set pieces are, for the most part, pretty engrossing. Even if nothing here is particularly impressive, it's all legible and entertaining. When the proceedings slow to a crawl to give the characters time to sell their dramatic arcs, it doesn't feel nearly as laughable as one might expect. Yes, the two hour-plus runtime strains the film's otherwise airy tone, but it's clear this length is mostly the result of mashing together the jobs of Dungeon Master and screenwriter. Simply put, scribe Michael Gilio was tasked with a structure that would be quite difficult to truncate into 100 minutes or less.

All in all, this film is such an earnest and effective crowd pleaser, any pretentious nitpicking or deep, probing analysis feels wrong. "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" makes good on a simple value proposition. Whether or not it inspires sequels or streaming platform spin-off series, it will have done its job of keeping people laughing, engaged, and not thinking about the rigors of modern life for a brief time. How enriching that escape will be depends greatly on your own interest in and knowledge of D&D's ins and outs. But even the uninitiated might find themselves with the irrepressible urge to find a friend who runs a weekly game, just to dip their toe into this expansive world.