18 Mar REVIEW – ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves’ is the first big surprise of 2023
Full disclosure; I know absolutely nothing about the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. I’ve picked up bits and pieces here and there from TV shows like Strangers Things and The Big Bang Theory. I appreciate its staggeringly enduring popularity for almost 50 years now. And I always admire the passion of a loyal fanbase. But Hollywood attempted a big-screen DnD adaptation 23 years ago. It was a spectacular failure. The thought of a reboot wasn’t exactly filling me with joy, but, lord, was I wrong.
Standing as the first big surprise of 2023, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a wildly entertaining blockbuster with equal servings of humour and heart. Cemented by a terrific ensemble cast of instantly loveable characters and a sharply written screenplay overflowing with dry comedy and spectacular set pieces, it will undoubtedly stand as one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Who saw that coming?
Set in the mythical realm of Neverwinter, the film follows Edgin (Chris Pine), a noble bard and member of a group of spies known as the Harpers. When one fateful mistake leads to the murder of his wife, Edgin turns his back on the Harpers to raise his young daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman) with the assistance of his brutish barbarian pal Holga (Michelle Rodriguez). The pair soon form a group of thieves with the self-doubting amateur sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) and ambitious rogue and con artist Forge (Hugh Grant). In a bid to obtain a mystical tablet that may resurrect his wife, Edgin and Holga are captured and sent to prison for two years.
After a daring escape, the duo are shocked to find Forge has suspiciously ascended to power as the Lord of Neverwinter with the help of the villainous Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). Forge has also selfishly turned Kira against her father with a series of lies about his lust for money that led to his imprisonment. Desperate to clear his name with his daughter, Edgin and Holga reunite with Simon and recruit scrappy tiefling druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) and head off on a quest to locate the tablet and prove Edgin was telling the truth.
With a dash of Indiana Jones adventure, a dollop of the heist fun of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the “rag-tag group of misfits” tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves takes great inspiration from the best of the action-adventure genre to create something genuinely fun. It’s a film that knows precisely what it is and leans heavily into the ridiculousness of its very existence. Unlike its 2000 predecessor, it never takes itself seriously. But this is no parody or satire and it wisely never mocks the very nature of what millions of fans hold so near and dear to their hearts.
When compared to properties like The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter, the fantasy elements of DnD: HAT (let’s just shorten things for brevity’s sake) are all fairly familiar. That’s not to say they’re not produced impeccably well. The visual effects are stellar and the world-building is beautifully done. And creators like George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling likely owe a lot of their style to the foundations built by DnD back in 1974. But it’s the way that DnD: HAT frames itself as inherently a deliciously engaging heist buddy comedy that really sets it apart from other fantasy entities.
That only succeeds on the back of a great script and a committed cast. Pin and Rodriguez are a terrific pairing, playing a yin-yang duo of pals whose platonic relationship is a refreshing change from the usual forced love story routine you may be expecting from such a couple. Edgin is the brains. Holga is the muscle. They perfectly complement each other and their tight bond is palpably magnetic from the start. The infectiously charismatic Pine has such great untapped comedic timing and Rodriguez is so adept at playing these gruff but endearing female heroines. When combined, the result is magic.
Smith is wonderful as the insecure wizard with a point to prove and his unrequited adoration of Lillis’ Doric is terribly adorable. Lillis equally impresses with an idealistic character whose mighty transformational skills (prepare to fall in love with Owl Bear) might just make her the most powerful of this entire group. When this quartet joins forces, they form a complicated quasi-family where each is truly given their moment to shine. They’re also all wisely given fully fleshed-out backstories and motivations to create a pure ensemble piece where you actually give a damn about every single character.
Then there’s the fabulous Grant, who’s having a ball playing the smarmy bad guy you’ll love to loathe. It’s the kind of delectably dastardly character Grant is now becoming synonymous with playing and he does it so damn well. Head is terrifically unnerving as the necromancy-loving sorceress, whose villainous performance is only elevated by the wonderful costume designs of Amanda Monk. But it’s the devastatingly handsome Regé-Jean Page who threatens to steal this whole film as Xenk, a powerful paladin who serves as the “straight man” of the piece that only makes everyone around him much funnier. There’s truly no weak link in this phenomenal ensemble cast.
The comedic background of directors/co-writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein make them the perfect choice to bring DnD: HAT to life. Co-written with Michael Gilio, the trio injects plenty of absurdity and silliness amongst the action and thrills, typified by a hilarious sequence involving reanimated corpses (voiced in the Australian release by comedy trio Aunty Donna) and a series of five questions. But they’re wise enough to instil this screenplay with a tremendous helping of heart that allows an audience to deeply connect with literally every figure in this wild ride.
At the core of DnD: HAT is a simple story of redemption, inner strength, and the power of friendship that makes this fantasy tale so universally relatable and accessible. You don’t need to be a Dungeons & Dragons fan to enjoy this film, but I’m sure there are all sorts of references and Easter eggs that sailed right over my head that devotees will eat up. That being said, there is an endless amount of exposition this film has to wade through before the fun can really begin. It causes the pacing to sputter somewhat initially with the need to over-explain the intricacies of this vast world and its inhabitants. That being said, the 134-minute running time didn’t feel as long as it could have.
A visual feast that never rests on merely creating something that looks spectacular, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is an old-fashioned fantasy blockbuster that soars on the strength of its cast and comedy. Even if you’ve never rolled that infamous 20-sided die in your life, this film will leave you entirely satisfied and richly entertained. There’s always something rather special about a film bluntly determined to deliver its audience a good time at the cinema. And a good time ye shall have. A new franchise might just have been born.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis
Directors: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Producers: Jeremy Latcham, Brian Goldner, Nick Meyer
Screenplay: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Michael Gilio
Cinematography: Barry Peterson
Production Design: Raymond Chan
Costume Design: Amanda Monk
Music: Lorne Balfe
Editor: Dan Lebental
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: 30th March 2023 (Australia)