Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves rolled for initiative and won my heart. That’s a D&D thing, right? I’ve only played D&D a few times in my life, but I’ve absorbed enough from pop culture and friends to at least understand the basic vibe and mechanics if not the expansive lore. The film requires no knowledge of said lore, as it’s all explained in the movie, but if you are a fan, you’ll be like the little boy sitting next to me at a packed early screening exclaiming every time he recognized something like an owlbear or a gelatinous cube.
Writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who debuted with one of the best comedies of the last decade in Game Night, rewrote the original script by original director Chris McKay and original screenwriter Michael Gilio—who still gets a writing credit, though who knows what of his script remains—and took influence from a host of films including The Princess Bride and the Indiana Jones movies. But the easiest way to describe why this film rules is that it’s essentially a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy, a ragtag group of misfits chasing various MacGuffins to defeat a bad guy while also discovering their own inner strength and creating a little found family. I was also reminded of the recent Willow series, which reminded me how much I apparently missed high fantasy with a light touch. This movie is so fucking funny, and I was cackling at so many bits, whether it was exploiting the arbitrary nature of magical rules or referencing DreamWorks animated films from the year 2000. On top of all that, it’s a heist movie! Who doesn’t love a heist movie.
The film opens with some delightfully related backstory and lots of it, so try to keep up while Edgin Darvis—yes, we are definitely in *checks notes* Forgotten Realms—establishes the emotional core of the film, namely that he has a dead wife, because of course he does, he is a male action hero. But also remember what Harpers are (they are…good?) and Red Wizards are (they are…bad?) and, uh, I may have occasionally forgotten the finer details of some lore because there’s so much to keep track of, but luckily, the characters remembered and cared. I loved that the movie opened with someone telling a story, since D&D is a game of collaborative storytelling, and this theme recurs throughout the film. It’s not long before the film then establishes the goal of this campaign: retrieve a magical artifact from a vault and Edgin’s daughter, Kira, from her captor, Forge Fitzwilliam (THESE NAMES).
The plot is basically made up on the fly in the best way, very much in the spirit of the seemingly chaotic narrative of Game Night that reveals itself to be fairly intricately constructed, mostly designed to get characters from set piece to set piece but always giving those characters agency on this quest. They have to keep adapting to plans failing, but they adapt with knowledge and strength gained over the course of the film, each one offering something distinct in skills and sense of humor. All of them contribute, and it’s such a tribute to how the game is a team effort. During the movie, you can identify points where a GM would explain, “Well it turns out when you don’t follow the rules, bad things happen,” or a player would say, “Can I just do this ridiculous thing?” and the GM is like, “Uh, sure, let’s roll for—wow that actually worked.”
Though it takes such a circuitous route assembling the team and going on side quests to find magical artifacts that it feels like there’s little time for the actual heist by the time we get to it, it makes it all the more satisfying when everything comes together to be relevant in the end. For instance, about halfway through, the group discovers a magical item that proves useful in a specific situation and I thought, okay, they need to remember they have that, because it seems like it could prove useful in other situations, and indeed, it proves useful in other situations! They are not idiots! Some might call it lazy to fall back on one trick, but I call it clever and efficient writing. At 134 minutes, the film does feel its length, but I enjoyed myself every goddamn minute, so even when it was going in yet more new directions or having to course-correct because something else went wrong, when the movie finally did end, I totally appreciated how it got there.
While the script eventually left me in awe with its ability to remain creative and inventive as the characters overcame obstacles, the characters themselves won me over very quickly. Give casting director Victoria Thomas a raise, because what a perfectly cast film!
Chris Pine brings charisma, charm, and comic timing—and apparently a nice singing voice!—to the role of bard Edgin Darvis, but he also brings heart and vulnerability to the character that sell his desire to reconcile with his daughter even though we unfortunately don’t get to see him and Kira (Chloe Coleman, doing solid work in her limited but important role) interact much onscreen. Michelle Rodriguez is often cast as a brooding heavy, and thus a barbarian named Holga Kilgore seems like a perfect fit. But here, she weaponizes her fairly homogeneous delivery in the name of dry comedy, which is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her do! I’ve been fond of Justice Smith since The Get Down, and he’s perfect as adorably downtrodden sorcerer Simon Aumar, who engages in plenty of self-deprecating humor. As the tiefling druid Doric—please do not ask me to explain what the fuck a tiefling is—Sophia Lillis adds a particular blunt humor into the mix. Bridgerton hottie Regé-Jean Page gets particularly high billing presumably for being a Bridgerton hottie, and now I can see what all the fuss is about, since he’s delightful as paladin Xenk Yendar (THESE NAMES!!!), a good-hearted warrior who’s basically the Drax of the movie, the guy who talks in convoluted speech and takes things literally.
Meanwhile, Hugh Grant’s been living it up in villain roles, and he’s so overly pompous as rogue Forge Fitzwilliam that even though in some movies, an older man talking about how much he wants to keep a teenage girl around could come off as creepy, here we completely believe there’s nothing gross about this at all and it’s all about how good it makes him feel to have someone look up to him.
Having all these actors understanding their characters so well means Goldstein and Daley can rely on so much character-based humor, the character dynamics replicating the camaraderie of friends sitting around a table and declaring that they’re going to stab the dragon in the head. In addition, in combat scenes, everyone sticks to their roles and what they’re good at, so there are only a couple of traditional fight scenes where the barbarian or the paladin go ham on a bunch of enemies, and they don’t try to make the bard into a badass. He bashes people with his lute, that’s how he fights! The sorcerer does magic stuff while reminding everyone that magic can’t solve everything! The druid has a slingshot!
The…the tiefling druid, who can do *checks notes* Wild Shape and change into various creatures, which unfortunately stretch the overworked visual studios to their limit and don’t look as convincing as I’d expect in a movie that cost $151 million dollars WAIT HOLY SHIT THIS MOVIE COST $151 MILLION DOLLARS?? I cannot believe they threw that much money at a fucking Dungeons and Dragons movie after the first one did so badly and HOLD UP THE FIRST MOVIE GOT TWO SEQUELS (one on the Sci-Fi Channel, one direct-to-DVD)?? I am learning a lot about Dungeons and Dragons today. In any case, while the animals and insects don’t look great—though the ability is used SO WELL—the dragons and other magical effects did convince me we were in this other fantastical realm.
Honestly, I was ready to declare my love for this film simply because it kept filling me with glee, but then it emotionally manipulated me into making me Pixar cry, which just sealed the deal. The same movie that makes multiple jokes with talking corpses also supercharges a character epiphany with deftly deployed flashbacks, and I should never have doubted that Goldstein and Daley could do both. Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves reminded me that blockbuster movies can be fun, escapist entertainment AND genuinely well-constructed and affecting films.