Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and Michael Gilio
Starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant
Classification PG; 134 minutes
Opens in theatres March 31
The geeks stay winning thanks to Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. The big-screen adaptation of the popular role-playing game is a giddy, comical and inviting brand expansion that gives its fans – who often suppress their inner wizards in public – good reason to wear their nerdy affections with pride.
The cherished property now has an amusing movie starring such heartthrobs as Chris Pine and Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page, who do for this brand what Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth did for Marvel. Pine and Page get in on the cosplay as swashbuckling heroes talking ancient curses and magic spells, fending off the undead during treasure heists while battling to see who among them has the most smouldering glare. They came to (dragon) slay in a somewhat overstuffed movie that is much better than it has any right to be.
What to watch in 2023: Our favourite new movies
Honor Among Thieves is the second roll of the dice at a D&D movie. The first, which came out in 2000 and cast Jeremy Irons opposite Marlon Wayans, was exactly the kind of campy and cringey bomb you’d expect until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings made geek culture an elevated genre. Honor Among Thieves learns a few tricks from those franchises while also mastering both the winking humour and sincere fan affection as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi) have in their movies
This Dungeons & Dragons comes from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the duo who co-wrote Spider-Man: Homecoming and directed the goofy but also unexpectedly sharp and thrilling comedy Game Night. The latter, fittingly, is about people who take board games and role-playing too far.
The secret to Daley and Goldstein’s success here is knowing what makes playing Dungeons & Dragons fun. It’s not the elaborate game play. It’s the game personalities who come to the table, encouraged to put on their most arch and ostentatious performances.
For that task, Daley and Goldstein rounded up a charming ensemble led by Pine, who, as the well-intentioned thief Edgin, combines his aged-like-fine-wine leading-man looks – those piercing blue eyes staring deep into your soul – with a frumpy, self-deprecating comic sensibility reminiscent of Jason Bateman. Pine is the kind of talent who can carry the dramatic and intense moments while still anchoring them with humility and humour.
He’s joined by Hugh Grant who is great as a snivelling con man, Michelle Rodriguez who brings her Fast & Furious grit to her savage warrior Holga, and It star Sophia Lillis as a nimble, shape-shifting druid, which any D&D aficionado can tell you is … actually it doesn’t matter. Fortunately, Honor Among Thieves can be easily enjoyed by those who haven’t so much as read the Dungeons & Dragons wiki.
The movie translates game play into a series of occasionally laboured riddles, quests and escapes from CGI creatures easily recognizable to anyone who saw anything from Willow to Warcraft. Its story centres on Pine’s Edgin, who goes through the ropes and tropes of the genre trying to reunite with his estranged daughter (Chloe Coleman) and bring his dearly departed wife (Georgia Landers) back to life. Daley and Goldstein don’t seem as invested in those emotional threads that motivate these characters, tending to such moments in strictly serviceable terms. That leaves the story feeling thin and stretched, dragging at times because of the familiarity of it all.
Daley and Goldstein aren’t here to reinvent. They love the tropes too much. It’s that fondness for what they mock with so much silly and snappy humour that makes Honor Among Thieves so charming. That affection is obvious especially when they punch up the familiar beats with inventive action and uncommonly stylistic direction.
Remember Game Night’s egg toss – a thrilling, CGI-enhanced long take uncommon in comedy that seemed to channel David Fincher in a genre dominated at the time by Judd Apatow? Honor Among Thieves follows that up with a similarly elaborate and exciting shot following Lillis’s druid as she escapes a heavily fortified city by morphing into various creatures that can crawl through cracks, fly out windows and catch both the villains and the audience off guard.
We’re dealing with filmmakers who aren’t taking any of this Dungeons & Dragons stuff too seriously. But they’re still playing to have fun … and win.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.