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D&D: Honor Among Thieves Makes Its Saving Throw

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was a kid in the 80s. I’ve played every edition but 4th*, and I credit discovering D&D when I was young with igniting my imagination and starting me on the path to being a writer. The game means a great deal to me, and when I heard that a new movie was being worked on, I was both hopeful and wary at the same time. Because while I still remember THAC0 tables and the Basic Set Red Box, I also remember the trainwreck D&D movie of 2000, as well as the straight-to-Syfy sequels (the second one is actually not bad, the third is garbage mama). So with the killer trailers and the positive buzz for the new film, I got excited but also realized that I needed it to be good. I needed it to be entertaining. I couldn’t take another failed adaptation. And while Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has its issues, it’s also probably the most accurate representation of the game I could have possibly asked for.

Like any good D&D campaign, we have our party of heroes. Well, calling our party “heroes” might be stretching the definition of the word a bit. Bard Edgin (Chris Pine) and barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) are thieves recently escaped from jail. Their mission is to retrieve an artifact they were trying to score on their last job, the one that landed them in prison in the first place. Joining up with Simon the sorcerer (Justice Smith) and Doric the druid (Sophia Lilis), they track the item to their old colleague Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant). In the two years since Edgin and Holga went to jail, Forge has become Lord of the city of Neverwinter and is advised by the sinister wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). And trust me when I say this leads to…complications in the plan.

There’s honestly a lot of plot crammed into the film’s runtime, and especially in the first act the pacing can be erratic as it tries to race through enough story beats to find its stride. It’s a rare film over two hours that feels like it should have been longer. But props to the creative team because it never feels like we’re being bombarded with information, and once the pace is established, the film is a rush of fun, action, and character drama.

Roll for initiative.

This film isn’t about the game. It runs off of D&D logic and rules, for the most part meticulously and accurately recreated with a few notable exceptions. If you’re a player you’ll easily recognize all the spells, monsters, and locations. It even uses the game’s official setting of the Forgotten Realms. But if you aren’t a player, you won’t need to know any of those things. All the rules are running in the background, properly used as the framework for telling a story about people and their struggles to improve themselves and their world. Like any good D&D game, the rules are just there to help things along; the characters are the stars of the show.

And these characters are fantastic. They’re endearing, they’re entertaining, they feel like fully-realized people. Both Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez do great work in roles that seem like they were custom-built just for them. Pine’s effortless charm and Rodriguez’s long history of playing bad-asses make them perfectly suited for playing bards and barbarians. Even better, the chemistry between the two feels very real. They’re best friends and companions, like brother and sister, and you can feel that bond in their interactions. And as an aside, I don’t remember the last time Pine’s butt look this good on screen. (I pay attention to details. It’s my job.)

Justice Smith makes Simon possibly the most relatable character of the party. Every character has their own personal challenge, and for Simon that’s crippling self-doubt and the fear he’s not living up to his family’s magical legacy. Smith approaches Simon as a person first, a sorcerer second, giving him extra facets and dimensions that aren’t necessarily in the script as written. As a contrast, Doric is probably the most under-written character in the film, and Sophia Lilis doesn’t add much to what’s there. That’s not to say Lilis does a poor job; on the contrary, Lilis makes Doric a fun, likeable character delivering her snarky dialogue with a fantastic bluntness that rivals Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But unlike the other members of the party, Doric doesn’t feel quite as elevated or explored as a character.

When the tiefling met the gelatinous cube.

The true scene stealers of the film, however, are Hugh Grant as Forge and Regé-Jean Page as Xenk, a paladin that joins the party for part of its mission. Grant is having a ball here. Forge is a charming, scheming asshole who’s constantly putting on a front of geniality, and Grant absolutely nails the smarmy energy needed to make the character work. Page for his part epitomizes the noble, Lawful Good paladin stereotype in a hilariously deadpan way. My biggest complaint is that the trailers implied that he was a full party member when he only shows up in the film for about 20 minutes. He’s the guest player that shows up for one session with a character more powerful than the rest of the party, helps grab a MacGuffin, then strides out into the horizon. The tension between Xenk and Edgin is a fantastic dance of contrasting personalities, and I needed more.

I realize I’ve spent a lot of time on the characters, but they are so integral to making the film work, and I fell in love with each and every one of them. Yes, even Sofina the clearly and transparently evil wizard. Daisy Head is wickedly, stoically intimidating, and one of my big complaints is that she’s not nearly on screen enough. And without these characters, this script and this story would be in grave danger of falling apart.

Let me be clear, the story has excellent bones here. But there’s a lot of it, and it doesn’t let a lot of the scenes breathe before jumping off to the next one. However, the actual plot ends up fading into the background, and by the third act the narrative’s heart is actually the characters’ own personal quests. If you looked at the story on paper, it’s a little bit of a chaotic mess all on its own. Then again, sometimes D&D games are like that. Even the most tightly-constructed games can get derailed when the players come up with out-of-the-box solutions to their challenges, something that shows up time and again here.

It’s a staff of solutions +3!

While the story may be a bit messy, the actual script often isn’t, full of snappy dialogue, legitimate humor, and moments of stirring character drama. Each character has a distinctive voice and energy, from Xenk’s stone-faced proclamations to Simon’s self-deprecating humor. It makes the scenes where the party’s simply interacting with each other as entertaining as the big action set pieces.

And what set pieces we have. Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have gone out of their way to give us memorable, well-executed scenes that snap the audience to attention. One highlight is a scene where Doric is trying to escape Forge’s castle, constantly shape-shifting into different animals to avoid the guards and Sofina’s baleful magic. Cut together as one long take, it’s intense and exciting, with Doric constantly engaging in increasingly narrower escapes. Another highlight is an underground sequence where the party must content with Themberchaud, an obese red dragon they’ve accidentally awakened. Goldstein and Daley balance the danger with absurd comedy. The dragon is legitimately deadly, but seeing it’s bloated and overfed body rolling around and desperately trying to fly is also absolutely hilarious. And very true to the game: Themberchaud and his massive bulk is Forgotten Realms canon.

Beyond all that, the film just looks amazing. The backgrounds and sets are meticulously created and vibrant. The creatures are a mostly well-executed mix of CGI and practical effects that help immerse you in the Realms. The spell effects are true to the game and serve as strong accents to the action (especially when the magic goes awry, as happens with Simon’s spells sometimes). Lorne Balfe’s score is stirring and both classical and modern at once. From a production standpoint, I really have very little to complain about.

Come to Daddy.

All of these factors come together beautifully in the film’s climax, as the characters face both their inner demons and the film’s actual antagonists, as well as a treacherous maze that tests their ability to work as a team and trust one another. One of the themes of D&D is the ability for damaged people to find their own family, and this is perfectly demonstrated by how the characters come together to fight against overwhelming odds. Whether you play the game or not, it’s a true and hard-fought emotional apex that works exactly as it should.

Now, that might sound a bit cliched, and I will not argue with you too much on that. But seeing all of this on screen in the context of a D&D movie simply hit me in the heart. Natural 20, in fact. While I would have liked a longer exploration of this story and the characters (this would have been an excellent six-hour miniseries), I can’t deny that is exactly the kind of D&D movie that this old, OLD-school geek hoped he’d see come to life. And I can’t wait for the next campaign to begin.

FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+

* Because 4th edition D&D is a dumpster fire, and I will hear no arguments to the contrary. Truth be told, my favorite system with always be 2nd edition. OLD SCHOOL.