I put on my robe and wizard hat
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is the type of movie that I imagined and hoped we would get on the regular after Avengers popped at the box office in 2012. It has a really charming cast of characters; a lightweight, comic touch; and engaging, fantastical set pieces. It takes its worldbuilding seriously, but not to the level that it distracts from the storytelling fun around it. The script is full of zingers and some very light postmodernism and trope deconstruction.
Most importantly, it’s a big blockbuster tentpole that also feels like it was made by friendly geeks who love the material and are excited to be making this specific movie. I know that’s a big ask, but peak MCU made it seem possible. How often in this post-Avengers decade have we seen a movie that checks those boxes?
The franchise in question for this film is not the world’s most popular superhero universe but the world’s most popular role-playing game universe. Technically, the setting is called Forgotten Realms, a pulpier spin on Middle Earth. You can just think of it as Generic Medieval Fantasy 101.
The film follows Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine — the only of the 2010’s brood of movie star Chrises not to appear in an MCU film, though he appears as one version of Spider-Man in a cameo in Into the Spider-Verse). Darvis is a lute-playing bard. He was once a member of the do-gooder Harpers but has become a self-serving thief. One day a job of his goes bad, and his wife is killed in retribution. Shortly thereafter, a second heist goes south, this one to acquire a magic tablet to revive his dead wife. Darvis is thrown in a dungeon with his partner-in-crime Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez, playing the exact character you expect given it’s Michelle Rodriguez). While in prison, he entrusts care of his daughter to his teammate Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), a rogue who cons his way into Lordship of Neverwinter.
The movie’s biggest issue is its opening, which gives us this entire backstory in a rat-a-tat, fifteen-minute exposition dump. My head was spinning; fortunately, the characters are distinct and broadly typed enough to leave an impression. I suppose this whiplash prologue works better than something more drawn-out, though. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation because we need to know and like the characters, but if this movie was any longer, it would definitely crumble under its own weight.
Anyways, before long, Darvis has broken out of prison and goes out to recover his daughter from Forge. Forge gives off such enormous “secret villain” vibes that I’m grateful Honor Among Thieves doesn’t bother dragging the reveal past the first act. And, inevitably, since this is part of the Marvel-ification of blockbuster cinema, our vainly human central villain is wrapped up in a supernatural evil conspiracy that could mean apocalypse.
All of this doesn’t even touch on the main narrative mission of the film, which is a get-the-gang-back-together story crossed with a heist story. The other members of the party are Simon the bumbling sorcerer (Justice Smith) and Doric the terse druid (Sophia Lillis). Xenk (Rege-Jean Page), a paladin, also shows up as a super virile and pure textbook hero who delivers some great deadpan. The entire cast has delightful presence and chemistry, with a flowing and comedic timing to their interactions. Grant gives the funniest performance, delivering his snide lines with seasoned wit, but Page’s zealous confidence is not far behind. (There’s a gag about Xenk walking dramatically into the horizon that had me doubled over.)
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the writers-directors of the very fun Game Night, helm Honor Among Thieves. The film feels shorter than its 134 minutes thanks to the zippiness of its plot and constant conveyor belt of good punchlines and moments. Daley and Goldstein do better with the comedy than the action, which was an issue I had with Game Night as well, but it’s always functional and legible, enough to get by. The most memorable set piece takes place inside a dungeon when an especially portly dragon threatens to eat the group.
Dungeons and Dragon: Honor Among Thieves isn’t quite great, but it is at least above average in every area of note. It doesn’t transcend its format or ambitions, but the sheer sum of its entertaining parts make it one of the more compelling big-budget spectacles of the past few years.