7/10 Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is fast and fun, much better than it has any right to be. The quote is “a great movie is three great scenes and no bad ones,” and there isn’t anything in this movie that sticks out too far in a bad way, so I guess that’s high praise.
The Forgotten Realms- Bard Edgin Darvis and barbarian Holga Kilgore (Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez) have lazed for two years at the Revel’s End arctic prison after their last job went sour. They bust out and head for Neverwinter, where their old crew’s rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) has set himself up as the lord, only to learn not only did he intentionally betray them and align himself with an apocalyptic cult of necromancers for power, but he has their daughter. The pair brings a new crew together to knock over the upcoming High Sun Games, a gladiatorial competition that Fitzwilliam has staked much of his lordship on.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is at the head of a potential gravy train people have been trying to get going for a while now. It’d been in development since 2013, there was a lawsuit over the adaptation rights, several filmmakers and stars came and went. Because of the pandemic, the initial July 23, 2021 release date was actually just a few months after production began, and of course it ended up getting pushed to 2023. Someone really seems to think this is going to be a gravy train, too – there’s tie-in novels, spin-off series, Hasbro is incorporating some movie locations into the game, and of course they’re talking about other movies as well.
The secret sauce to Honor Among Thieves’ success as a stand-alone day at the movies is the casual, passionate performances form actors who feel free to make the characters their own and relationships that feel earnest. Arguably the central relationship is Darvis’ explicitly sexless alliance with Kilgore, whom he sees as his daughter’s adoptive stepmother rather than his own partner, and most other relationships follow a similar “found family” dynamic – not with insecure assertions of “family” as a way to elevate friendships a-la Fast and Furious franchise, but the shape.
“Dungeons & Dragons” is a storytelling framework, not a story in and of itself. Every fantasy movie is, in essence, a “Dungeons & Dragons” movie with some details moved around, and I go in wondering what the point is of a specific “Dungeons & Dragons” branded movie. Co-writers/directors/executive producers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have said they wanted to infuse the world with the game’s feel and whimsy, and they’ve done a spectacular job. The film takes place in a beautifully realized and diverse world that I’m assured is game-accurate and teems with adventure. Every background character is on their own quest, and every location seems in the middle of a daily routine that Darvis and his team must interrupt. It reminds me really specifically of Star Wars with the variety of creatures in the background who are created through puppetry and costuming.
A lot of critics have pointed to Honor Among Thieves as a Marvel riff because it’s an action-comedy fantasy movie instead of a dramatic fantasy movie, and Disney owns that genre now instead of just properties that use it, I guess, but the Marvel-y sarcasm is much less appealing than the genuine treatment of most of the world elements. The Red Wizards are really scary, and paladin Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page) really feels like the inspiring presence he’s supposed to be within the film world.
The movie is a Marvel riff in the extent that it’s mostly a cartoon, and you can really feel the 2023-era filmmaking, especially in the long one-shots of druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) shapeshifting her way out of jams. Many action scenes turn into an almost completely animated sequence with a coked-out spinning camera, but not all of them, and its easier to follow than it might have been. I generally dislike that type of camera movement, but the choreography and blocking within it is clean enough that most everything is still visible and understandable while translating that feeling of everybody doing their own thing to screen.
The “nice guy” storyline with Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) as he makes eyes at Doric is annoying, but it’s encouraging to see a version of this story that’s free of emotional manipulation and self-pity and more honest about what people actually find attractive in each other. His attraction to Doric lifts completely out of Aumar’s arc of working through his inferiority complex and learning to operate within his limits while also expanding them, and Doric seems mostly disinterested even when she decides to give him a shot.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves released a week after the surprisingly popular John Wick: Chapter 4 and a week ahead of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is an unfortunate spot to hang out in. It ground its way above $100 million internationally, more than half of its $195 million worldwide haul as of this writing, and that’s not great against a $150 million production budget, but there are positive enough signs that someone who really wants this to be a gravy train could move forward with a cheaper, more internationally oriented approach. A lot of stuffed suits really, really wanted this movie to happen, and they’re going to want it to happen again even if this one wasn’t a smashing success.
The game lends itself naturally to an anthology approach, so it’d be nice to see this take real advantage of the Marvel model – that is, the rise in serialized storytelling at the movies lowering expectations and allowing several different productions to tell several different stories at once while cross-promoting each other. A world with a major Dungeons & Dragons movie every quarter, all of which have different tones and settings and stars and hopefully don’t become so inbred that people feel like they need to watch them all, is a better world than the MCU-dominated one we live in today.
So I can cope with this movie and I can see a future where it’s the patriarch of a broad franchise that I can also cope with, but we’ll see what actually comes to pass.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at email@example.com.