The appeal of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is making your own fun. Getting a group of friends together, creating characters, and embarking on a quest dictated by your Dungeon Master is an unrivaled experience. How does one translate that to the big screen? Dungeons & Dragons (2000) answered how to not adapt such material with a stuffy, corny script that served as a slave to the lore more than attempting to bring to life what makes the game so special. Cut to 2023 and writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Game Night) seek to recreate the fun of the game in their new adaptation, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. While its pervasive humor may prove unwieldy at times, Dungeons & Dragon: Honor Among Thieves captures the euphoric chaos of a D&D campaign between friends with gusto, serving up a solid blockbuster in its own right.
As the story kicks off in the mystical world in which Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is set, bard and former member of the noble warrior faction the Harpers Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and his barbarian associate Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) clumsily pull off a daring escape from imprisonment. Looking to retrieve a mysterious treasure that will reunite Edgin and his estranged daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) with his deceased wife, Edgin and Holga round up a merry band of misfits including wild magic sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and the tiefling druid Doric (Sophia Lillis). Their epic adventure brings them up against former ally and professional conman Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) and the nefarious Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head), while also crossing paths with the overtly heroic yet mysterious paladin Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page).
The biggest sticking point for most audiences in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will likely be its script. Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s screenplay, co-written by Michael Gilio, bursts at the seams with lively humor. Though there’s an overabundance of quips, just as many working as those that fall flat on their face. There are more than a few “well that just happened” moments where a character will give an unnecessary comment on the ridiculousness of a situation that deflates the tension.
On the other hand, the situational comedy of it all works brilliantly. Images such as an overweight dragon causing the geography of a location to shift and a sequence where the clueless crew at the center of the story have to keep on resurrecting corpses to ask them questions after wasting their previous questions are downright inspired. When the film plays into the frenetic attempts by the protagonists to brute force their way through difficult obstacles, it’s dynamite- perfectly mirroring the table-top RPG’s appeal.
An area where viewers may be lost is in the heavy usage of Dungeons & Dragons mythology that mainly comes across as white noise, if not for the game cast. Two truths of modern cinema are that Chris Pine is always going to be charming and Michelle Rodriguez is always going to be a badass. Don’t expect Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to break that cycle. Furthermore, Justice Smith’s insecure sorcerer Simon is a hoot and Sophia Lillis’s quirky shapeshifter threatens to steal the whole picture altogether. Pepper in a smarmy Hugh Grant, terrifying Daisy Head, and a bizarre (in all the right ways) Regé-Jean Page doing his best NPC (Non-Player Character) and you have a cast that’s easy to follow into battle. Given how much of a breeze they make this film, you can quickly imagine yourself watching a few more of these.
Whereas the writing of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dailey can be a mixed bag, they absolutely knock direction out of the park. A modern IP-based blockbuster having action sequences this well-choreographed is simply a gift. A deliberately staged brawl between Michelle Rodriguez and a group of guards towards the beginning is merely the appetizer. Moreover, a one-take tracking shot following a daring escape by Daric transforming into all manner of creatures – including the fan-favorite Owlbear – is a total showstopper, and that happens not that far into the movie! That’s not even to bring the aforementioned escape from the chubby dragon, or the final climactic showdown so accurate to the tactics of an actual D&D battle that you can practically see the graph paper projected onto the screen. Even when the pacing and baffling 134-minute runtime can drag, there’s always another rousing set piece around the corner.
If there’s one thing Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has an abundance of, it’s imagination. Despite the party being mostly made up of humans, there’s no shortage of creatures to gawk at. Anthropomorphic hawk people, lizards, “mimic” creatures that impersonate inanimate objects, panther-like displacer beasts that can project a copy of themselves – and did I mention a chubby dragon whose fire breath is reduced to a pathetic sparking cough? – are eye candy to look at. Sweeping vistas and various novel uses of magic make sure there’s always something interesting in the frame as well.
Admittedly, the quality of the visual effects does not always match up to the ambition on display in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, especially when it comes to CGI-based effects. Still, there’s a shocking amount of stellar practical effects on show when it comes to the film’s creative creatures – animatronics, heavy make-up, the works. The hiccups hardly matter when there is that much ambition going on. During a time when so much fantasy can run together, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dailey’s adaptation finds the glee in being transported to a strange new world where magic, monsters, and, of course, dungeons and dragons run amok.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves could’ve been a cynical cash grab designed to mine the IP for all its worth. Instead, it’s a loving tribute to the enduring thrill of a game designed on putting the player’s imagination first. Sure, some of the jokes fall flat, the visual effects don’t always grasp what they reach for, and the pacing can be a killer, but there’s no such thing as a flawless Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Warts and all, this is a great representation of the ramshackle storytelling of buddies getting together to tell a story from scratch and to tackle challenges dictated by the path the Dungeon Master – in this case, the screenwriters – set in front of them. That it’s a highly entertaining blockbuster chock full of personality is a bonus, and if it gets people interested in starting their own Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, then it’s done its job well.