Rollicking 'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves' scores a critical hit
Even if you don't know a halberd from a hezrou, you'll probably go into Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves thinking you know what to expect.
Because even if you've never experienced the beloved tabletop role-playing game on which the film is based yourself, you do know what a putative blockbuster franchise film looks and feels like in 2023.
You know, in particular, that it can be counted upon to adopt a specific, unvarying and very familiar tone, which by now we can all agree to call Marvel Funny.
Marvel Funny occurs along a spectrum adjacent to, but meaningfully separate from, Actually Funny because it's colder and more calculated. It is calibrated to wink at the audience conspicuously and unceasingly, to encase the spectacular and fantastic action of a given film — super powers, or space battles, or in the present example, spells and monsters — in a protective coating of ironic detachment.
This allows filmmakers to lean into the bombastic, over-the-top spectacle they spend so much money to deliver while ensuring audiences know that everyone involved with the film is in on the joke, that very soon some character or other will come along with a quip — an arch, sardonic, too-writerly quip — to prove that nobody's taking any of this stuff too seriously. It's a formula, a ritual, an attempt to dispel the grim specter of Cringe.
(It's only reasonable to acknowledge that this cinematic formula is wearing thin. And that it's not entirely fair to call it Marvel Funny, as this approach has been coded into the genetic material of the blockbuster itself from the beginning; you can detect trace elements of it in Jaws, Superman: The Movie and Star Wars.)
So, you're in the theater. The lights go down, and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves begins (if you're me, you at this point maybe think to yourself, "We come to this place ... for Magic Missile"), and sure enough, there it is, manifesting right there in the opening seconds of the very first scene: that same, predictable, inescapable approach. Marvel Funny. You were right.
But then, a few seconds later, you start to notice that the film's copious jokes — the quips, yes, but also the visual gags and the dialogue itself — are better, stronger, and funnier than they strictly need to be.
And then, should you allow yourself a moment of reflection, it likely occurs to you how weirdly right it seems, how well that familiar approach seems uniquely attuned to the film's subject. After all, any Dungeons & Dragons session unfolds on two levels simultaneously. There is the world of the game, in which your characters experience epic struggles and extreme violence and suffering unto (and sometimes beyond) death, while above it, there is the world of the table, around which you and your friends sit scarfing hard sourdough pretzels and joking about how badly you're all about to get boned.
So here, Marvel Funny works. It makes a kind of ironclad, ruthlessly meta sense. It helps tremendously that the cast is so deft at tossing off the film's many jokes so they seem like the legitimate product of their given situation instead of some mid-afternoon punch-up session in a dingy Burbank writers' room.
A game cast fit for a role-playing game movie
The adventuring party at the center of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is led by Chris Pine as Edgin, a bard far too convinced of his talents. It's the kind of role Pine was engineered in some secret subterranean Hollywood breeding facility to play: a character who not only rides the razor's edge between charm and smarm but who sets up housekeeping there.
And speaking of smarm: Hugh Grant, as a rakish rogue, is once again serving us the kind of full-bore, insufferably plummy poshness he gifted the world within Paddington 2. He's reached the stage of his career where he can spread the ol' smarmalade thick and more power to him. He sure looks like he's having a ball.
As the sullen barbarian Holga, Michelle Rodriguez doesn't get the chance to do a lot that you haven't seen Michelle Rodriguez do before, but she remains great at it, and this time out, she does it in braids. So. There's that.
But it's Regé-Jean Page who makes the most of his (too-limited) screen time here. As the noble paladin Xenk, he radiates an amusingly galling breed of virtuousness. (Paladins, for those unfamiliar, are the smug, preening, condescending white knights of the D&D world — a bunch of Frasier Cranes in plate mail.) Page nails the necessary hauteur and supreme confidence while layering them with a guileless sincerity that turns his character into a weapon aimed at Pine's character's every insecurity.
But what will the Normals think?
If the film does well, a large percentage of its audience, perhaps a majority of it, will have come to it unfamiliar with the densely interconnected network of rules, stats and bylaws that make the game what it is. So an important question becomes — what will those uninitiated into the nerdy number-crunching of D&D possibly make of this thing?
The filmmakers — Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who together directed the excellent 2018 film Game Night and co-wrote this script with Michael Gilio — smartly use the game's deep lore to buoy the script, not weigh it down.
If you go into the film knowing the internecine mechanics of D&D gameplay, you will certainly recognize them playing out onscreen — but you miss nothing if you don't.
Worried you'll be bombarded with obscure references to places and characters from the game? You will. But just because the film's so stuffed with Easter eggs you could mash it up with mayo, mustard, onions and celery and serve it on wheat toast, your enjoyment of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves doesn't depend on recognizing them.
Sure, the characters can and do toss out references to, say, a Baldur's Gate here or a Mordenkainen there, but they're only in the script so the nerds in the audience can turn to one another and share knowing looks. If, in their adventures our doughty heroes run into a displacer beast or two, or if a rust monster scuttles over their heads in a dark alley, those Easter eggs for eager D&D fans will serve only as background detail, mere ambience, for everyone else.
The fetch-quests and the furious
The film's plot is purely, ruthlessly episodic – it comes down to a series of fetch quests: They must go to [place] to talk to [person], who sends them to [other place] to secure the [magical item] that will allow them to access to [still another place], etc. But to complain about the number of fetch quests in a D&D film would be like complaining that a movie about Scrabble features too much spelling.
Given how gleefully Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves embraces and exults in its genre elements, it's interesting to note that it's all the stuff geared to making the film accessible to the mainstream that is the most dully generic thing about it.
A plotline involving Edgin's daughter (Chloe Coleman) and his dead wife exists to up the stakes and motivate his actions in the thuddingly predictable manner of Hollywood action movies. There's also so much wet-eyed, lip-quivering dialogue about "family" you can't help but suspect that Michelle Rodriguez brought it with her when she crossed over from the Fast and Furious franchise. Who knows; maybe she didn't quarantine correctly.
But the movie even manages to shake off that mild complaint, given its nature. After all, the game of Dungeons & Dragons is what happens when wildly disparate people come together — both in the fantastical realm of Faerun and around a rickety folding table in your friend Dana's sunken living room.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves doesn't just know that; it finds room to honor it and fully, freely embody it.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.