Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is Formulaic Fun — For Better or Worse
Clever and rousing but unambitious, Dungeons & Dragons needs another session to evolve.
Once upon a time, Dungeons & Dragons was so inaccessible that paranoid parents mistook the premier fantasy game for devil worship. The most devoted wizards and Dungeon Masters couldn’t hope to introduce their uninitiated friends to the immersive hobby of analog roleplaying games without a sneer or, at least, a puzzled expression. But that has all changed. Now the geek is king, and Hollywood regularly looks to nerdy IP for glossy movie and TV adaptations. This all ultimately culminates — for better or worse — in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
Honor Among Thieves is a rousing, if unambitious, action-comic fantasy that arrives right at the ideal moment of the cultural zeitgeist where fandom-pleasing superhero movies gross more than the GDP of small nations. Franchise-driven vehicles are now the lifeblood an unhealthy Hollywood depends on for survival, but Dungeons & Dragons is less a defibrillator shock back to consciousness than a fresh IV bag-swap to sustain a comatose genre. On the one hand: It’s a crowdpleasing fantasy vehicle that may entice anyone, even the most unwilling, to try and roll dice themselves. On the other, the movie rarely seizes on its own strengths to really slay.
Like a medieval Guardians of the Galaxy, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has its own handsome and funny leading man named Chris, and its own group of eccentric, barely moral adventurers questing for riches. The two main anchors are Edgin (a dandy Chris Pine), a scheming bard agonizing over his failed fatherhood, and Holga (a brawny Michelle Rodriguez), a rough-and-tumble warrior who is more than a sidekick.
Formerly a band of thieves, they break from prison to get back at a con man, Forge (a deliciously game Hugh Grant) who betrayed them and has aligned with a menacing necromancer (Daisy Head) to seize control of a city. Along the way they recruit two more to their cause: a journeyman sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) and Doric, a “tiefling” (she has horns) who can shapeshift. When Edgin’s daughter is held hostage by the scheming Forge, they must soon fight for the world’s survival.
There is a clear reverence towards the very specific experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons from Honor Among Thieves’ filmmakers, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (the brains behind the sublime Game Night). Daley and Goldstein’s comic sensibilities play well in the Forgotten Realms (D&D’s main setting), showcasing a Terry Gilliam-esque bravado for whimsical comedy beats like introducing a bird-shaped person and bureaucrat named, of all things, “Jarnathan.”
It’s for that reason Honor Among Thieves is almost a worthy recommendation, with its execution nothing short of a philosophical miracle. It’s perhaps the first-ever faithful adaptation of the spirit of the source material rather than its expansive canon lore. So often Honor Among Thieves feels less like a movie than it does sitting around someone’s kitchen table, following characters imagined not by professional screenwriters, but by improvising theater kids drunk on Mountain Dew. Everyone’s just too ready to tell you their convoluted backstories (experienced players know what I mean), or roll with new wrinkles in the plan. And one scene-stealing character, a heroic paladin played by Regé-Jean Page, is the player every D&D group has: the person who can’t attend every session.
Honor Among Thieves is an earnest celebration of the source material that manages to doubly appeal to all audiences, gamers or not. But as a consequence, the movie is all a touch familiar. The film is full of winking, ironic humor straight out of the Marvel playbook, as if Daley and Goldstein copied Marvel Studios’ homework and passed it off as their own. (The duo wrote 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, so they’ve seen the machine up close.) Despite the competent action choreography, the film’s goofy visual effects and busybody script keeps any of its emotional punches from landing a critical hit.
Encapsulating both of Honor Among Thieves’ strengths and weaknesses is Chris Pine, whose “Ed” is the de facto lead of the ensemble. Channeling his cocksure James Kirk of Star Trek for bardic inspiration, Pine joyously relishes his place in a world populated by orcs and owlbears. He’s a treat in this movie, as he typically is; Pine has always been the paragon of the 21st century’s Hollywood leading men, his radiance as a movie star only eclipsed by the might of superheroes. Pine proves his chops haven’t dulled any in Honor Among Thieves, even if his tangible charisma struggles in an overburdened franchise starter.
Honor Among Thieves is unquestionably a great time, with plenty of charm to work a strong enough spell under the right conditions. It’s more ambiguous if Honor Among Thieves stands as a good movie — especially one so clearly designed to launch a universe. Despite some moments of pure cinematic joy, it fails to rely on the inherent strengths of its characters, its worldbuilding, or even just the thrill of the heist. When the credits roll, there’s the nagging feeling the movie wholly coasts on what’s familiar rather than what’s bold — its broad action-comedy tones recycled from elsewhere to render even its most spectacular high-points derivative. Even clever twists and Daley and Goldstein’s chaotic-neutral comedy are not enough to overpower its shortcomings. In the end, it’s clear that Honor Among Thieves’ biggest priority isn’t riveting storytelling, but leaping over an invisible hurdle of D&D as a scary, impenetrable nerd thing anyone not already invested can’t enjoy. Honor Among Thieves successfully makes that leap. It’s just a tragedy Honor Among Thieves feels made by formula – and that the formula functionally works.
At best, Honor Among Thieves is an entertaining (eldritch) blast that harnesses the unbridled spirit of the thing it’s based on. At worst, it’s a noisy blockbuster too comfortable by the warm fires of familiarity. It’s a strange beast of a thing that chooses fun over true moviegoing escapism. It doesn’t take much to fall for its spellcasting, and with the right party, Dungeons & Dragons may compel you to imagine your own creation. But once you play the game, you might find a more enriching experience than what any movie can deliver.