The life of Edgin (Chris Pine) is a tale of misfortune and woe, sung in a pleasing tenor. In the fantasy realm where Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves takes place, he formerly was a member of a peacekeeping group known as the Harpers. The Harpers worked with the Red Wizards to keep things orderly. One day, he became disenchanted with his role and turned to thievery. For reasons I don’t want to divulge here, his wife was killed by Red Wizards. Edgin turned into a drunk and all-around lousy father, but fortunately for him, a warrior named Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) took pity on him. She decides to help him raise his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) for reasons never really made clear. The two are not romantically linked, even though that probably would be the case in any other movie they appeared in. (I also suspect this was done to remain true to the spirit of the D&D game, a favorite of nerds who probably avoid mushy romantic stuff at all costs.)
After sobering up, Edgin devises a plan to resurrect his wife. He recruits Forge (Hugh Grant) and his partner Sophia (Daisy Head) and middling sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) to steal the “Tablet of Reawakening” from the Harpers. Unfortunately, things go pear-shaped and he and Holga are captured. (It’s much more entertaining as Edgin tells it, trust me.) Years later, Edgin devises a plan to escape from a towering prison located in the snowy part of the realm. When in front of the parole board, Elgin desperately wants to wait for Jarnathan, a huge bird-like being, to speak on his behalf. The actual plan was to use Jarnathan as a getaway plane of sorts. It’s a clever bit, one of several in the movie that took me pleasantly by surprise. (Don’t worry, there are several others in store.)
Now free (and with all of the backstory out of the way), Edgin wants to reunite with his daughter, who has been under Forge’s care since the ill-fated tablet episode a year before. He’s now a Lord, as in Lord Forge. Eh. Forge has convinced Kira that her father ditched her for riches, so she wants nothing to do with her Deadbeat Dad. Also, Forge and Sophia have an evil plan of their own underway, and want Edgin and Holga out of the way. This results in a funny sequence where Holga dispatches an executioner and assorted armed men while Edgin tries to free himself. (D&D serves as an excellent reminder that Pine can be incredibly funny in action movies.)
Aware that Forge has turned his daughter against him, Edgin sets out with Holga to build a new team that will rescue Kira and retrieve the tablet. The movie shifts into Quest Mode, where the Platonic Duo meet up with old friend Simon, recruit druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), obtain several magical items (a teleportation staff, a helmet referred to as “The Helm of Disjunction”), team up with the literal-minded spellcaster/knight Xenk (Bridgerton hunk Regé-Jean Page) and visit a magical place called the Underdark. Even though I’ve never played it, I’ll go out on a limb and assume that these are typical elements of the game the movie is based on.
Filmmakers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein deserve a lot of credit for making scenes of very familiar sword and sorcery material fresh and exciting. Their secret weapon is a playful sense of humor that they incorporate into several of the movie’s best scenes. There’s a harrowing escape from a pudgy but determined dragon, a visit to a graveyard to interrogate corpses for intel, and Doric’s frantic escape from Forge’s castle in the guise of several different animals. There’s also a visit to Holga’s ex, a halfling played by an actor who I never would have pictured in a movie like this one. The graveyard scene in particular is one that any fan of Monty Python would appreciate, and is the funniest in the movie.
Edgin’s plan is to use the magical helmet to enter Forge’s castle and collect Kira and the tablet. Simon’s self-doubt over his sorcery skills make using the helmet impossible, so Edgin devises Plan B. That plan doesn’t work as planned (sorry) and Forge throws the group into the gladiatorial games (think Gladiator meets The Maze Runner). The group manages to wriggle their way out of danger just in time to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with the movie’s Big Bad. I appreciated that the final battle was a collaborative one that relies on each character overcoming their personal doubts.
I enjoyed D&D because it strives to entertain with good natured humor and genuine emotion rather than relying on special effects. I was overwhelmed at first trying to decipher the movie’s dense lore and remembering each of the character’s names, but I quickly gave up and decided to enjoy the ride. The helmet is just a magical helmet, the tablet is just a powerful stone, and so on. The same goes for the character’s names, which I found clunky and forgettable. I mentally told myself that I’m watching Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant in a rollicking adventure movie and that simplified things for me tremendously. (I have no idea why Grant’s character is named Forge.) I promise to make more of an effort to remember who is who if there is a sequel. Until that happens, I just liked watching Pine do his swashbuckling hero routine, Rodriguez kick medieval ass and Grant twirl his figurative mustache.
In addition to the solid performances, I appreciated D&D’s innocent and silly tone, which was the norm for fantasy films before Game of Thrones and The Witcher arrived on the scene. (Yes, I too appreciated the copious nudity and general wickedness of those series, but still.) The movie features several action sequences directed with verve and infused with wry humor that recalls the best of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lastly, D&D makes the smart choice of mixing practical effects and CGI so that the latter doesn’t overwhelm the action. I wish other big budget franchises would take note of how this movie is constructed and opt against green screening everything to death. D&D doesn’t reinvent the fantasy genre, but it entertained me from beginning to end. That’s good enough for me. Recommended.
D&D is fun and entertaining. That is the consensus opinion of the movie, one that I agree with. It reminded me of the time before Game of Thrones (2011-18) and The Witcher (2019-), when fantasy stories could be enjoyed by the entire family. Not that I didn’t enjoy either of those two series, because I certainly did. However, both were so full of “mature adult” material that I always felt that the showrunners were always trying to meet quotas. Something along the lines of, “Every episode must strive to achieve the following: two topless scenes, one full-frontal (male or female), a sex scene with visible thrusting, one fatal sword fight and four quarts of blood spilled.” I’m exaggerating a bit here, but not much.
Before GoT dominated the fantasy world consciousness there was the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). I enjoyed those movies quite a bit and consider them as the gold standard for fantasy storytelling. When The Hobbit trilogy arrived in 2012-2014, GoT made it look quaint by comparison. Sure, LotR and The Hobbit could conceivably be seen by the entire family, but who cares about that when HBO was serving up copious nudity, rape, incest, brothel sex, beheadings and so forth.
In many ways, D&D feels like a throwback to LotR, or even earlier. Like the LotR movies, it’s rated PG-13, which felt wrong considering how much carnage the LotR movies included. Unlike those movies, D&D is much gentler in tone. It is primarily concerned with adventure instead of grim fate-of-the-world stuff. It does have a villain, Sofina, but she’s nowhere near as threatening as any of the orcs or wizards in LotR. She may be powerful, but she comes off as a pint-sized Voldemort. There are killings in D&D, but they are few in number and completely bloodless. In one scene the bad guys who are dispatched are already dead, so they don’t even count.
What I’m taking so long to say here is that D&D is a very innocent movie. It isn’t focused on war and carnage like LotR (and The Hobbit), or making every one of your R-rated fantasy dreams a reality like GoT. (I’m oversimplifying, sue me.) Instead, D&D focuses on each character’s personal growth by way of the quest. If what I’ve seen on the Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things is accurate, the D&D game is a way for friends to go on an adventure together. They work collaboratively to achieve a goal and have fun along the way imagining that they are fighting various creatures, dragons, wizards and so forth. The game is about having fun in a way that everyone involved can feel comfortable participating in. In this way, I believe D&D has captured the essence of the game upon which it is based.
(As you may have guessed, I’ve never played D&D. Hard to believe that a geek who’s spent his life on a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy has never experienced the game first-hand, but it’s true. Ah well, maybe that will be a bucket list goal when I’m retired.)
D&D reminded me of the movie Dragonslayer, which came out in 1981. That movie actually has some nudity and gore, but incredibly was only rated PG. (It probably would have been PG-13 if it came out a few years later.) Even with those elements, the tone of that movie is fun because it emphasizes the hero’s quest to defeat the dragon, not whether he hacks people to death with his sword and beds the girl. Just like D&D, fulfilling the quest ultimately is the thing that Dragonslayer is all about.
Another reason for why I enjoyed D&D as much as I did was because it is genuinely funny. Put simply, the movie has characters that act amusingly and say amusing things. The movie’s jovial tone, if I can call it that, begins with Chris Pine. As he showed so well in the Star Trek and Wonder Woman movies, Pine excels at heroes who exude bravery and courage, almost to the point where I would describe them as “comically fatalistic”. No matter the situation, those characters always have the attitude of, “Certain death? Impossible odds? No hope of survival? Let’s do it!”. It’s a devil-may-care braggadocio that echoes Brendan Fraser in The Mummy, or Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Pine’s heroes embrace their challenges with open arms and laugh at the impossibility of it all, like a swashbuckler of yesteryear. Speaking of laughs, Pine is a master of the dry quip. At the outset of D&D, he warns a new inmate in their cell to not mess with Holga when she’s on her potato break. He is, of course, correct, but the way he says it in such a casually glib way makes the throwaway line hilarious.
Pine is a perfect leading man for science fiction and fantasy because he makes the incredible relatable. He’s an average guy dealing with incredibly strange and unusual things the only way he knows how, by diving head-first and making a joke about his likely death. It would be great if D&D could be his next franchise, but if it isn’t, I hope it leads to something that will utilize his natural gifts as an action movie hero. On a side note, when he and the rest of the cast appeared briefly before the movie started, I was shocked to see that his hair is turning gray. Someone get this man a franchise stat before he gets any older!
Hugh Grant is also funny as Forge, a man who knows he has no morals or ethics and loves it. At this stage in his career, Grant seems content with playing characters people hate instead of being charming and loveable. I have the feeling he enjoys the role as the smarmy, backstabbing villain as much as anything he did in his rom-com days.
Regé-Jean Page is also brilliant as Xenk. I haven’t seen a minute of Bridgerton, but when he first appeared in D&D I could immediately tell why he is a rising star. He’s handsome, has presence and has a light comedic touch. Like Drax in the Guardian of the Galaxy movies, as well as Spock and Data in Star Trek, he doesn’t understand metaphors. It’s a funny bit that the movie doesn’t overdo. He’s also a tad of a literalist. When Xenk eventually leaves the gang, he walks straight to a rock and instead of walking around it, walks over it.
There are many funny scenes in D&D. There’s the one where the gang has to revive a series of corpses in a graveyard to find out the location of a magical helmet. Then, when the gang finds it, they need to escape from a very pudgy dragon. Later, when Holga and Edgin are on the verge of getting their heads chopped off, Holga fights all of the men off while Edgin patiently tries to cut through his bonds. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that the movie had a member of the Monty Python troupe involved with the script.
D&D isn’t all laughs and silliness, though. It has several well-staged action sequences that were impressive. My favorite one is set in Forge’s castle, when Sofina discovers Doric eavesdropping. In what is constructed as a single long take, Doric repeatedly shape-shifts into several different animals until she’s clear of danger. The scene is so expertly staged and scored that I was riveted by it. Oddly enough, the scene reminded me of what the Jason Bourne movies did so well, which was starting out innocently and steadily ratcheting up the danger and chaos every few seconds. The scene also works so well because I believed Doric was in mortal danger throughout. She has powers that, while awesome, have limitations.
Another favorite is the group’s escape from the Underdark. Yes, it’s a homage to the Mines of Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring. D&D’s variation works because it’s funny watching the gang running away from a dragon so fat that it prefers to roll instead of trying to walk. Everything about it is comical without being cartoonish, if that makes any sense.
The gladiatorial games scene definitely rips off The Maze Runner, and is probably the weakest action sequence of the lot. It even opens with a shot that is a direct callback to Gladiator. Even still, I liked how Doric figures out how they can use a fatal trap as their way out. I would imagine that this is another element of D&D’s long-lasting appeal, in that it gives the players the opportunity to think their way out of problems instead of fighting all the time.
The closing battle between the group and Sophia is also excellent, but for completely different reasons. As a fan of the Marvel movies, I couldn’t help but notice how the scene resembles the times when the Avengers fought Thanos. (The movie even calls that out when Doric makes sure Sophia is down for good.) However, D&D distinguishes itself from Marvel by making the final confrontation the culmination of what each member of the group learned on the journey. Sorcerer Simon Aumar learned that he was his own worst enemy, and finally has full control over his powers. Doric let go of her cynicism and learned to trust humans to make things right for her people. Edgin learned to accept responsibility for his failures and let go of his dreams of resurrecting his dead wife. Holga accepted that she was not responsible for the death of her people just because she left home for love. In the end, Sophia wasn’t defeated by one person doing something heroic. It was a team effort. A game well played, indeed.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiMinixSXII