Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a throwback to the silly, borderline camp fantasy films of the 1980s, such as Legend, Dragonslayer, and Willow. It’s silly and rambling and broad and weird and features a host of hot people playing an array of characters meant to represent the classic D&D alignment board, but also appeal to wide audience.
It’s designed to feel like a D&D campaign, with a lot of here-and-there’ing, multiple reversals of plan, some standing around and “what next”-ing, and a sort of purposeful shambolic attitude to plotting that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever rolled the twenty-sided dice. But fear not, for the film glides through worldbuilding with relatively little fuss so as not to intimidate the uninitiated—though if you’re the kind of person who tunes out as soon as people start talking about “realms”, this film is just not for you.
Directed by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (an alum of D&D loving series Freaks and Geeks), who also co-wrote the script with Michael Gilio, you can feel the affection for D&D in every second of the film. The film industry is crawling with faithful campaigners, from famous gamers like Joe Manganiello to rank and file union jobbers who got into the creative arts because D&D stoked their love of imaginative storytelling. The best elements of Honor Among Thieves come from the sincerity of the approach, and the clear affection everyone has for the material. There is no sneering or eye-rolling here, everyone is taking the assignment very seriously, even as the cast imbues their characters with varying degrees of wit, roguish twinkles, and wry humor.
Chris Pine shines, as usual, as the bard Edgin, whose wife is killed and daughter kidnapped by his former partner, Forge (Hugh Grant), and an evil Red Wizard called Sofina (Daisy Head). Grant is in full showman mode as self-described con-man Forge, if anything, the film could use more of him, he brings a dry whimsy that offsets the geekier elements of the film nicely. And Head is fantastic as Sofina, mugging and glowering her heart out, obviously reveling in playing a classic fantasy baddie. The other cast members are equally, er, game, from Sophia Lillis as a shapeshifter, to Justice Smith as a sorcerer lacking confidence, to Michelle Rodriguez as a barbarian warrior. The standout, though, is Regé-Jean Page as a paladin called Xenk, who laces nobility with just a touch of smugness that makes Xenk slightly punchable. He’s Lawful Good, but like, he KNOWS he’s Lawful Good, and that makes him just the tiniest bit intolerable. It’s a great character beat.
The purposeful shagginess of Thieves, while accurately reflecting the vagaries of tabletop gaming, does become a drag on the film over the course of its 135 minute runtime. The film needs to be tighter, either by dropping the deliberate “gee, what next” vibe or trimming down the runtime, but combining meandering AND a two-hour-plus runtime is excessive and does become a little wearing. There is a clear effort to replicate the feeling of playing D&D, which is understandable, but maybe misguided. Cinema is its own narrative form, with its own demands, and where Thieves is weakest is when it runs up against trying to preserve the free-wheeling aspect of gaming with the strictness required of finite storytelling. Films end, while D&D campaigns can be notorious for lasting years, and these are incompatible storytelling styles. Gamers will undoubtedly love all the side quests, but general audiences might grow weary of constant wandering from point A to B to C and back to A again.
Thieves is a little bit messy, and unfortunately, the VFX crunch is visible in many of the imperfect, even outright shoddy effects shots, but the cast of characters is delightful, and the action is thrilling and sometimes even clever. It’s never a problem to watch Chris Pine twinkle at the camera, or Hugh Grant chew on scenery, and it turns out, Regé-Jean Page is hella fun as more than just a sexy duke. The film does manage to walk the line of pleasing fans of the game while still appealing to the uninitiated, though the high fantasy vibes won’t be for everyone. Still, if you’ve been missing the sort of broadly sincere action-fantasy films we used to get in the Eighties, Honor Among Thieves is chaotic good.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is exclusively in theaters from March 31, 2023.