‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ Proves Chris Pine Can Save Anything
Swords. Sorcery. Multi-sided dice. The dubious title of “Dungeon Master.” Tiny, pewter miniatures of warriors, wizards, and assorted mythological creatures. Basement rec rooms. Groups of teenage dudes — not exclusively dudes, but almost always dudes — huddled around battle maps and books of grid paper. These are the things that most folks immediately think of when they hear the name Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing game that’s turned generations into die-hard fantasy fanatics during their formative years. It’s also gotten a bad rap, since it’s become a shorthand for a certain type of outdated caricature of mouth-breathing dweebdom. No matter how many celebrities publicly wax poetic about their D&D campaigns with famous friends, many still associate it with freaks, geeks, and the cast of Stranger Things. To paraphrase one of the great intellectuals of the 21st century, you’re not hardcore unless you nerd out hardcore.
“We made this movie for everybody,” Jonathan Goldstein, one half of the duo behind Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, told the crowd at the film’s opening-night premiere of this year’s SXSW Film and TV Festival. His co-director, John Francis Daley — no stranger to D&D — echoed the sentiment numerous times as well. It sounded like a plea: Guys, we know you think this is going to be nothing but inside jokes and deep cuts aimed at those who understand the difference between a Beholder and a Basilisk. Seriously, though, you can come in knowing absolutely nothing about any of this. I mean, sure, there will be Easter eggs. Gotta have fan service. But just think of this as your average mash-up of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, some MCU flotsam and jetsam, and all those ’80s action-comedies all of us used to watch over and over again on DVD. We all love that stuff, right?
Well, yes, we do (some of those elements more than others), and you can bet that the SXSW audience who crowded into the Paramount Theatre sure did. Big-name studio comedies, horror flicks, and genre-friendly blockbusters always play like pop concerts at this Austin festival, even when they aren’t kicking off the first portion of the movies/music/multimedia event. Honor Among Thieves happens to fall into all three of those categories, which made it an ideal opening-night selection — even if that’s the only time “ideal” can really be applied to this admittedly better-than-it-ought-to-be casserole of fantasy film leftovers.
So there are these two thieves named Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez). They’ve been jailed for trying to steal this totem known as the Tablet of Reawakening, along with their sorcerer-buddy Simon (Justice Smith), and a con man known as Forge (Hugh Grant). It was all a set-up, see, and plays into this whole revenge plot involving Edgin, his estranged daughter, a dead wife, a guild of spies known as “Harpers,” and some nasty wielders of dark magic known as Red Wizards.
[These Red Wizards, for the record, come from the country of Thay and can cast third-level arcane spells. Pretty dope necromancers, to say the least. They are ruled by the Council of Zulkirs and count the dreaded Szass Tam, a much-feared “lich,” among their ranks. Again, you don’t need to know this. The movie is for everybody, guys. We now return you to this review, already in progress.]
When these two heroic cellmates stage a jailbreak, they find out that “Uncle” Forge has been tricking Edgin’s kid, Kira (Chloe Coleman) into thinking she’d been betrayed and abandoned. Worse, a supernatural weirdo named Sofina (Daisy Head), who had been hanging around before they got nabbed, has her own plans regarding the tablet, and — spoiler — those plans do not involve anything remotely good. Once they reunite with Simon, the trio head out in search of some artifacts that will help defeat the Sofina/Forge alliance and save Kira. Aiding them in their quest is Doric (It’s Sophia Lillis), a shapeshifter, and the mighty paladin Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page). Also there’s overweight dragons and talking corpses and flaming scepters and gelatinous cubes that, to be fair, will help you escape a panther with killer tendrils if you’re stuck in a maze.
Does that sound like a lot? It is, and it isn’t — Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is, at its core, a standard hero’s journey straight outta Joseph Campbell, just one that happens to have a lot of specific lore slapped on top of a typical sword & sorcery narrative. It’s also very much designed to be the start of a new franchise based off a recognizable if narrow intellectual property. This isn’t the first time someone has used the D&D handle in the name of big-time entertainment: There was a Saturday morning cartoon series in the early 1980s, and a schlocky attempt at a Dungeons & Dragons movie in 2000, which had the misfortune of coming out one year before the Lord of the Rings trilogy changed the game. (It’s only legacy is the answer to the trivia question: What movies stars Thora Birch, Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans?) The brand has character types and a manual’s worth of monsters, without having a literary or comic-book or cinematic canon in terms of storytelling. It’s ripe for the IP picking.
Yet the one thing it does have in its favor has, oddly enough, nothing do with the property itself whatsoever. It’s the old-fashioned movie star factor. Let us now praise famous men, or rather, the best of the current famous Hollywood Chris’s: Chris Pine. The gent has played do-gooders and bad guys, done the comic-book movie thing (as a love interest), stepped into some famous Starfleet-commander shoes, and proved he’s the sort of actor who can help turn something like Hell or High Water into an instant classic. But here, Pine is called upon to be both a traditional square-jawed hero ready to save the world and the smart-ass comic relief looking out for No. 1. In other words, he’s got to be both Harrison Ford and Bill Murray.
And damned if Pine doesn’t pull it off. D&D is a reminder that he can be a matinee idol who’s quick with a quip, someone who knows how to play off his fellow actors and fill the screen with his presence and charm — call it “Chris-risma” — whenever he needs to. The cast know what they’re doing: Grant is clearly having fun utilizing his post-Paddington 2 sleazeball act, Rodriguez does her glowering, tough exterior/gooey center bit, and judging from the way Page plays his straight-arrow heartthrob (he does not understand sarcasm or colloquialisms), he’s hopefully booking leading-man roles by the dozens. But Pine is the secret sauce that keeps this thing buoyant and fleet-footed, even when the plot turns start piling up. He’s the guy at the center of this ensemble who’s shining but not eclipsing everybody. More than the VFX and the grand-gesture spectacle, he’s the one making this movie fun. Like vintage summer-blockbuster kind of fun.
The SXSW audience ate it up, and when Pine appeared what looked like a green suede leisure suit, everyone gave him the adulation he deserved. The talent spent the Q&A portion taking questions from the audience and nodding as numerous people kept gushing, “I don’t know anything about Dungeons & Dragons but this is, like, awesome.” The more they said the movie’s entire name, however, the more you kept thinking about the tug of war happening within the thing itself. Were this simply a fantasy called Honor Among Thieves, a title that encapsulates its mix of sweeping adventure and multiplex pleasures just fine, it likely would have never been made. The fact that it has Dungeons & Dragons fixed to the front half of it is what underwrote what’s onscreen. Yet no matter how much the creators confess their love of the game, all of those shout-outs to creatures, character types, campaign details and so on feel like annoying distractions. The IP is both an enabler and an albatross around the film’s neck. You wished they just rolled the 21-sided die on making a Chris Pine movie instead of relying on a name that doesn’t quite have the level of cleric power they might think.