As required for every film critic before discussing the new Dungeons and Dragons movie, subtitled Honor Among Thieves, I must tell you my personal history with the seminal tabletop game. Well, I don’t think D&D is for me. Many of my friends are heavily involved in D&D, several as the quest-fashioning dungeon masters, and I’ve even sat in for a few games, but there’s something about the group improv experience that I never feel comfortable while playing, like my mind just runs into imagination roadblocks trying to come up with options in a near limitless space. Plus I think character creation is one of my lesser storytelling skills; I typically build characters more out of plot and concept and theme. Also, the demanding time commitment to play a game that can take possibly months or years to conclude makes me hesitant. I already think Monopoly lasts too long and has a habit of ruining friendships (if I was ever paid to write a Monopoly movie, that would be my starting point, not bringing to life Mr. Moneybags). 

Anyway, D&D has had something of a cultural renaissance the last decade, reaching new levels of wider acceptance partly thanks to its prominent placement in Stranger Things. Pretty good for an ever-evolving 50-year-old game system that was at one point blamed for luring impressionable youth into the ways of Satanism and insanity (see the ridiculous 1982 movie Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks as a student who cannot distinguish between reality and the game world to murderous effect). It’s such a substantial fantasy property that it was only a matter of time for movies to follow. There was an abysmal D&D movie from 2000 co-starring Thora Birch and a go-for-broke Jeremy Irons that isn’t worth your time. I wasn’t excited for a new Dungeons and Dragons movie until I saw that its directors and co-writers were Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. I was a big fan of 2018’s Game Night, their last directing effort, and they’ve been a dependable comedic writing duo. It was with them that I placed my faith and that faith was fully rewarded when my wife and I watched Honor Among Thieves and had a delightful time. This is a wildly fun D&D movie for every viewer.

In the world of owl bears and sorcerers, Edgin (Chris Pine) and his trusted partner, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), are looking to settle the score. They’ve broken out of prison and are trying to gather their old team back together but everyone has a grudge. Forge (Hugh Grant) has betrayed the group for power and especially riches, serving as the city’s reigning lord. He’s recommissioned a gathering of games and sport, drawing crowds back to the city, and with games comes betting and with betting come large sums of money from the rich. Edgin plans to rob from the treasure hold for the games and with that score he can regain his daughter and possibly reclaim a magical totem that can bring his dearly departed wife back.

I have no prior understanding of anything relating to the world and lore of D&D, and I found it to be extremely accessible and engaging. That’s because Goldstein and Daley have put the emphasis of their movie not on its lore or history or locations but on its characters. I appreciate that here is a major work of IP for a studio that is attempting to tell one very good and accessible story for the masses rather than set up a cinematic universe and ready it for possible sequel bait. Get the movie right and have that make me desire more movies rather than establishing a world that has potential but otherwise goes unfulfilled. The very concept of Honor Among Thieves helps to keep things light-hearted and moving. My pal Ben Bailey and I have been clamoring for years for a heist movie set within a fantasy world. It was ready-made to satisfy with the genre structure of heists, and putting a team together that rolls with unexpected adversity, and the cleverness of incorporating fantasy abilities and elements into heist genre familiarities. Thankfully, Goldstein and Daley realized how entertainingly plentiful this combo can prove. 

The fun characters are what help to make the movie so enchanting. Rather than settling on a subsection of class representation (one dwarf, one elf, one wizard, etc.), the characters are more about what they bring to the team and what motivates them for character arcs. We have a shapeshifter (Sophia Lillis) who is trying to protect the kingdom’s encroachment on her kind. We have a shaky wizard (Justice Smith) who is battling for his own self-confidence and respect. Nobody feels like a token appointment. Even characters that would seem like a D&D player’s dream, a powerful paladin played by the dashing Rege-Jean Page (Bridgerton), are given more purpose. He serves as a contrast to our hero’s journey back to respectability, and the character is so noble and serious that it’s yet another shade of comedy to explore. His obliviousness to irony and sarcasm reminded me of the very literal-minded Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy). This is a character that would appear in standard fantasy epics, and yet he’s played for laughs just through sheer juxtaposition without ever mocking the reality of this world. At no point will characters condescend to their reality, saying self-aware critiques like, “Well that’s a very inconvenient and stupid place to put a castle,” etc. There is a cameo where the gag is that this person is much smaller. The appearance is played for goofy laughs and yet it’s also shocking in its emotional sincerity. If you removed the size differential, this would be a dramatic and eventful scene (I did enjoy the unspoken preference of this individual when it comes to a romantic partner). The movie is very funny and very skilled at being funny without reliance upon meta genre riffs. 

Elevating an already great movie, Pine (Don’t Worry Darling) is robustly charming as a bard/secret agent. He secured my loyalty within two minutes of the movie when he gave up on his prison knitting project and said, summarily, “I’m just gonna make a mitten. Who am I trying to impress?” Pine has long been one of our most effortlessly charming leading men, and playing a rakish heist leader who also sings will only magnify the man’s innate appeal to the masses. He works even better alongside Rodriguez (any Fast and Furious movie after 6) who becomes the real physical presence. This is a career-best performance with Rodriguez sliding right into exactly the comedy wavelength she’s needed for – the gruff and cynical worldview of the weary warrior. They make for a great bantering lead duo. 

The set pieces are also tailored to the character arcs while still being memorable and entertaining. This is a movie that doesn’t get complacent over its 134 minutes. Each sequence must stand out, whether it’s because of creative and intuitive fight choreography that makes keen use of geography and circumstance, or a graveyard Q&A with very constrained magical rules to follow that leads to a lot of digging to find the right corpse with the right information, or escaping from an obese dragon (with its “widdle wings”) that resembles a chonky cat, or a dangerous trip through a maze that abruptly reconfigures itself, or a prison escape that doesn’t quite go as you expect, nor at the characters expect. Every scene has a purpose. Every magical item has a specific use, and every set piece sets itself apart visually and from a story standpoint. 

Goldstein and Daley have excelled as writers, but they’re also proving to be visually adept directors. With the emphasis on characters, it’s not CGI spectacle for spectacle’s sake. There’s a pleasing physicality to this world. The budget is in the $150-million range, which is quite a show of confidence for the directors, but the emphasis is on what best elevates the moment. There’s a thrilling escape performed as a tracking shot with a zooming camera tracing the escape of our shapeshifter from harm, and there’s fantastic visual inventiveness with a magic portal and its application for the film’s equivalent of a rollicking stagecoach robbery. There’s a noted intention here with the shots and scenes and visual arrangements, so Honor Among Thieves feels like a studio film with vision.

Allow me to take one very fleeting moment to digress just how much care Goldstein and Daley put into even the smallest of details. After we’ve met the last core member of our crew, he confidently leans backwards and falls into a pit leading to an underground cavern. The rest of the crew creep toward the opening and stare down below with trepidation. Simon then says, “I’m going last.” We then cut to the group at the bottom of the cavern. It’s such a small detail, but the previous scene ends on a character-appropriate punchline for Simon reconfirming his squeamishness, but then by transitioning to the entire collected crew together, we know he was last and so we’re ready to move forward. Again, it’s a small detail but it’s a microscopic example that proves, to me, how much thought and care the directors have given. 

As a novice to the famous role-playing world, I found Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to be an exhilarating and highly entertaining fantasy adventure where fun is the chief priority.  It’s not at the expense of great characters, good humor, and satisfying payoffs with well-developed setups strewn throughout. It’s a reminder how enjoyable and escapist blockbusters can be when you have the right artists using the expansive box of paints. It’s great for all ages and families too. I don’t have any personal connection to this sword-and-sorcery universe but now I want many more adventures if this is kind of quality they’re offering.

Nate’s Grade: A-


This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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