The Stew Review: Dungeons & Dragons movie delivers critical hit of fun, adventure
TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Note: I was able to see this movie a couple weeks early due to a special advanced screening for Amazon Prime members. So if you go to the multiplex this weekend and Dungeons & Dragons isn’t there, it won’t release wide until March 31.
I’ll just cut right to the chase. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has a real shot at being one of my favorite movies of the year. It almost certainly won’t be an awards contender and no one’s likely expecting this to break box office records. But as a work of pure entertainment? A high bar has been set for the rest of 2023 to try and clear.
There was reason to think otherwise, however. High fantasy films both before and after The Lord of the Rings have largely been underwhelming duds. The genre is difficult to truly nail, but co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (along with their co-writer Michael Gilio) have managed to channel everything fun, fanciful and fantastic (in the older sense of the word) about swords and sorcery into a rocket-propelled adventure that satisfies at nearly every turn.
And if you’re completely new to the realm of D&D and have no idea what a displacer beast is, can’t point out where Neverwinter is on a map, or know the difference between magic missile and mage hand, fear not! Honor Among Thieves does a fantastic job of introducing the audience to this world and its inhabitants.
Guiding us through this adventure is Edgin (Chris Pine), a bard and thief who pals around with Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a barbarian warrior exiled from her people. They’ve broken out of prison and are scheming a way to rescue Edgin’s daughter and get payback on the man who stabbed them in the back during a theft that went horribly wrong. To do it, they’ll need the help of a struggling wizard, Simon (Justice Smith), a shapeshifter, Doric (Sophia Lillis) and paladin Xenk (Rege’-Jean Page). As you can probably guess, what they see as a very straightforward mission at the start becomes something much more dangerous and complicated the deeper into it they get.
The particulars of the plot aren’t terribly interesting and feel like a fairly standard setup at play if it was a Saturday night and you’re sitting at a kitchen table with some friends, rolling a D20 and waiting for your older brother to further unfurl his scenario as Dungeon Master. What makes Honor Among Thieves such a cracking good time at the movies is the playful spirit Daley and Goldstein infuse into the proceedings, the superlative chemistry among the cast and a script that delivers a very precise balance of humor, pathos and swashbuckling adventure.
Part of why this movie had my audience eating out of the palm of its hand was due largely to how funny it is. There’s an abundance of laughs to be had with sarcasm and one-liners to spare, though it blessedly avoids that Joss Whedonesque trap of simply making everyone a snark-machine that fires off identical-sounding quips at the drop of a hat. The members of our heroic quartet each react to the escalating escapade with humor at various moments, but it all feels organic to who they are. These characters are all archetypes (each a literal class you can choose in the tabletop game), but the script never treats them specifically as such. We’re given ample backstory, but never so much as to bog down the proceedings. Each gets their time to shine. Page deftly steals his scenes by being charmingly dense. Smith and Lillis are new to my eyes but keep up with the veterans. And this may be the most fun I’ve seen Rodriguez have since the first Fast & Furious movie.
But even as well-balanced as the party is, it’s safe to say that this is Chris Pine’s show. I’ve been a fan of Pine’s since he pitch-perfectly played a slack-jawed yokel assassin in the schizophrenic action flick Smokin’ Aces. It was clear then that he had a wicked comedic sense and he was unafraid to bury himself in a character. But he was also burdened with leading man looks, which of course only confuses Hollywood producers who seem incapable of letting pretty people do wild and weird things. (See also: Pitt, Brad.) The joy of Honor Among Thieves is that it perfectly splits the difference for Pine. He’s certainly a capable leading man, but his role as Edgin finds the perfect balance between his strengths as a character actor and his leading man charm.
I can’t stress enough, though, just how fun this is. The villains are villainous. The heroes are (mostly) scoundrels with hearts of gold. There are no existential moral conflicts at play. It’s just a good old-fashioned magic-fueled romp with high (but not world-ending) stakes and a healthy dose of heart. And, perhaps most importantly for a high-fantasy flick, it doesn’t skimp on the stuff you want to see. Dragons. Black magic. Danger-filled caves. Mythical beasties of all stripes. A deadly maze. Mimic chests. Gelatinous cubes. It’s all here. A movie of this pedigree demands these elements show up in excess and Honor Among Thieves delivers.
I hope these early screenings are a sign that Paramount Pictures knows how great this movie is and they’re trying to build as much positive word of mouth as possible. I want sequels. As many as I can get. This was a delight from end to end and if nothing else, I’m happy with that.
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