Charisma Check — Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
When I first saw the trailer for the latest adaptation of the Dungeons & Dragons game, my immediate reaction was one of terror. Not because anything in the teaser looked particularly scary, mind you, but because I still remember the god-awful 2000 film starring Jeremy Irons, and everything I saw indicated that this would be just as bad, if not worse. The acting seemed hammy, the Easter Eggs felt shoehorned, and the CGI effects looked just as shameful as the entry from 20+ years ago, which made Ivan Ooze’s final form look like fucking Avatar.
Imagine my shock then when I started seeing early reviews come pouring in, praising Honor Among Thieves up and down. Was there a gem hidden here? When I included it in last month’s TFINYW, I noted the use of a Led Zeppelin track in the preview, and given how reticent the former members are to license their music (and rightfully so), I thought that maybe there was some carried over affection that resulted in their blessing. But after reading the early praise (it sits at an astonishing 90% on Rotten Tomatoes), maybe they actually saw it, and perhaps there was something of quality.
So I held my nose and took a look. After emerging from the theatre, my guts forced me to use a word I hardly ever use to describe a movie.
Yeah, that’s how I feel. I feel nothing. Objectively, the flick isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it’s not exactly good either. Some elements work, and basically an equal amount don’t. But it is exceedingly rare for a piece of entertainment to basically leave no impression on me whatsoever. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t get bored. At no point did I wish I was watching something else, but at the same time at no point did I truly engage with the material. It was just… there, existing on a screen for just over two hours, proceeding apace until it was over. I guess on the whole this makes it a disappointment, but anyone who lived through the last theatrical attempt knows just how horrid things can be, so it’s just as easy to grade it on a very forgiving curve.
I guess what I’m saying is that it appears that the main goal with this film was to capture the feel of living out a D&D-style fantasy, to sort of project on the screen what we imagine when we play the game. However, when it comes right down to it, the only one of the six main character stats this film embraced was Charisma. There is undeniable charm on display here. But there is no real Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, or Wisdom… in every sense of those words.
The story focuses on a band of rogues led by Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine, admittedly more funny than he’s normally able to pull off), a bard who used to belong to an altruistic order called the Harpers who exist to perform good deeds purely for the sake of largesse. He is constantly accompanied by the barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), who was expelled from her tribe for falling in love with a Halfling. The film begins with the two of them imprisoned in a frozen labor camp, with Edgin giving the parole board a sob story in order to secure an early release. Like several other films so far this year (chiefly the Ant-Man and Shazam! sequels), it’s a little confused on the tone, as Edgin constantly interrupts his own tale for a running gag about a board member who is absent, and who he’s relying upon to get him and Holga out of their predicament. Thankfully, this film is a touch more consistent with going for humor in most scenarios, but it’s still a bit jarring when they try to inject genuine sentimentality and pathos into the silly proceedings.
The pair’s goal is to reunite with Edgin’s daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), whom Edgin had to leave behind on the heist attempt that landed him in prison. Convinced by his colleague Forge (Hugh Grant) that a sorceress named Sofina (Daisy Head) could help them steal an artifact that would resurrect his dead wife (Georgia Landers), Edgin agreed to “one last job,” only to be betrayed by Forge and Sofina (revealed to be from the tribe of Red Wizards that killed his wife in the first place), the former spending the intervening years acting as Kira’s surrogate father and manipulating her against Edgin. Once free, Edgin and Holga seek the help of another former adventuring partner, the Half-Elf wizard Simon (Justice Smith), as well as the shapeshifting Druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) and the Paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) to stop the Red Wizards, free Kira, and deal out some appropriate justice to Forge.
There are some aspects here that the film truly gets right. While it never genuinely replicates the experience of playing a D&D campaign, there are sustained moments where it does recreate the mood of a game, specifically the part where you just hang out with your buddies and shoot the shit for extended periods of time. While only about half the characters made an impact on me personally (Pine, Page, and Grant), they did have believable chemistry with each other, save for the rather pathetic simping that the insecure Simon levies at Doric. Some of the jokes, particularly the runners, really do work. I wasn’t chuckling all that often, but I appreciated the cleverness with which they were crafted. Some of the character designs were also fairly impressive, with humanoid creatures (like one with a bird’s head, for example) either using practical makeup and puppetry effects or convincingly approximating them.
On the flip side, there are also myriad problems. Sofina “dramatically” changes the color of her wardrobe to reflect her Red Wizard status, but it always comes off like the editors have realized they can adjust the gradient on a shot, and there’s almost no plot reasons for the reminder that she’s evil. Hugh Grant is delightfully over-the-top as the villain, but I just saw him be even more delightfully so in Operation Fortune, so it kind of just feels like an affectation at this point. While some effects were seemingly done in realistic fashion, the vast majority look completely fake, especially an obese dragon and some very bad compositing when Holga interacts with Halflings. The story, despite being very predictable (including the mid-credits tag joke that I called the instant its prelude scene unfolded), contains one diversion and MacGuffin after another, all of which are resolved by plot bots and cheap deus ex machinas. To put it in the context of an actual D&D game, it came off like a Dungeon Master who’s just making up the story as he goes along, throwing obstacles in the party’s way only to sweep them away just as quickly for fear of dragging things down.
All of this is to say that the film is perfectly serviceable, but in no way memorable. It’s clear that the filmmakers and Paramount are trying to set up a new franchise by basically taking the fantasy game IP and putting a fresh coat of comic book movie paint on it. And in that respect, it succeeds. There’s enough to like that if you find yourself getting hooked, you won’t feel bad about it later. At the same time, if it completely infuriates you with its convenient plotting, subpar visuals, and misplaced hokum masquerading as emotional character development, you’ll feel wholly justified in hating it.
But as I said, I couldn’t muster up enough energy to really care one way or the other. It’s uninspired, but inoffensive. It’s adequate, but far from special. I acknowledge some of the wit, but also understand that the writing is overall mediocre and the dramatic moments ring hollow. I appreciate the fan service and references littered in every scene, but they can also be incredibly distracting.
It’s… fine. It’s just fine. And honestly, if you’ve played the game enough times, you know exactly what that feels like. You’re not upset that you spent the time with friends, but you can’t deny that it feels a little empty. And in the right moment, you can convince yourself that you had enough fun to try again down the road.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you play this or any other role-playing games as a kid? How exactly does a subterranean dragon in an unknown realm get so fat with no apparent food supply? Let me know!