Despite an ill-fated, ultimately aborted attempt at a standalone franchise more than two decades ago, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the venerable tabletop role-playing game created in the late 1970s, remains one of the last great, untapped media properties. But where there’s studio-owned intellectual property, there’s almost always a way―even if the way in question involves the better part of a decade of development and shifting screenwriters, directors, actors, and countless false starts. It’s been an obvious point of frustration for fans, especially as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings similarly-themed series has seen a trilogy, a prequel trilogy, and another prequel series over the same time span.
That long and winding unpaved road has finally led to Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a lavish, effects-heavy big-screen adaptation overflowing with humour, action, and enough D&D lore, legend, and mythos to fill several doorstop-sized volumes. It’s everything D&D fans could and should want from a translation of D&D’s core ideas, ideals, and gameplay.
Co-written and co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Game Night), Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens in scene- and tone-setting, fourth-wall-breaking, meta-fictional fashion (a sign of narrative sleights of hand to come) as Edgin (Chris Pine), a onetime do-gooder and ex-Harper’s Guild member turned thief, recounts his tale of woe from the confines of a medieval prison cell. His best friend and platonic life partner, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a burly barbarian and warrior, has joined him in the cell, though neither remains imprisoned for long as they make good their escape with the inadvertent help of an unwitting accomplice, Jonathan (his description counts as a spoiler).
With “escaped convict” added to their list of crimes, Edgin and Holga―the former driven by his paternal instincts to reunite with his teen daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), the latter out of unerring loyalty to Edgin―set out on the first of several related quests, each one the equivalent of a D&D adventure. The film, seen as a whole from a macro perspective, is the equivalent of a campaign. Before Edgin can rescue Kira from the clutches of onetime-friend-turned-foe Forge (Hugh Grant), he needs to get a heist together. He turns to Simon (Justice Smith), a junior-grade sorcerer distinctly lacking in self-confidence, Doric (Sophia Lillis), a shape-changer distrustful of humans, and later, Xenk (a scene-stealing Regé-Jean Page), a century-old paladin of immense charm, perfect diction, and battle skills to match.
Not surprisingly, each member of Edgin’s heist team contributes a very special set of skills familiar to D&D players. They also contribute something else: strong, well-defined characters who, alone and collectively, become an almost inexhaustible source of verbal and physical humour throughout Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, often pulling in different, conflicting directions, occasionally to semi-disastrous effect. Ultimately, like the long-lived characters in Rodriguez’s other franchise (The Fast & the Furious), they have to learn basic lessons about trust, responsibility, and, of course, the true, non-Hallmark meaning of family, all while evading all manner of traps, obstacles, and cunning, red-robed wizards with nefarious agendas of their own.
Daley and Goldstein have already proven themselves remarkably adept at balancing various dramatic and comedic tones, clearly defined action, and character arcs. All were in evidence in Game Night, easily one of the best studio action comedies of the last decade, but it was an open question whether Daley and Goldstein could bring those same sensibilities to a much larger, more effects-heavy canvas. The short (and long) answer: They did and they have without showing any of the growing pains typical of filmmakers working with bigger budgets, larger casts, and more complex set pieces.
That certainly bodes well for their careers as filmmakers, but assuming they decide to remain part of the D&D world, it bodes well too for whatever happens next in the series. As a bonus, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will more than likely draw new, D&D-curious players to the fold, extending the tabletop, role-playing game’s viability for another generation and beyond.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens theatrically Friday, March 31.