de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

The tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has been around since the mid-1970s. It was initially a sensation, though the fortunes of the game and the various companies that have owned it have waxed and waned over the years. With something so popular, Hollywood is bound to take a crack at adapting it. The first Dungeons & Dragons film was released in 2000 and it was a failure at the box office and with critics, though it has gained a cult following over the years. Sequels followed in 2005 and 2012, with less budget and less fanfare. But when the 5th edition of the game launched in 2014, it brought with it a rise in the game’s popularity. The age of social media and live play podcasts, of which Critical Role is the most famous example, have brought together a large worldwide D&D community. This popularity spike, along with a decade-plus of comic book and fantasy films dominating the box office, have led to a new film with a high-tier cast and a large budget. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, from Game Night directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley is a fun comedy-adventure film that does a very good job of capturing the spirit of a session around the table with friends.

In a clever opening, the film starts with Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) before a parole board in a huge prison in a frozen wasteland. Edgin is stalling for time waiting for the arrival of a board member he believes will help him by telling the story of his life and arrest. He had spent years working for a secret organization, The Harpers, who were dedicated to protecting their world, Faerun. His wife Zia (Georgia Landers) and a daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) were attacked by the Red Wizards of Thay in retribution for Edgin’s work for the Harpers. Zia died, though she was able to hide Kira from harm. In his despair, Edgin falls into a life of thievery with Holga, a fierce barbarian, serving as a maternal figure to Kira. When Edgin hears of a treasure at a Harpers stronghold that will allow him to bring his wife back to life, he and his band of thieves plan a heist.

The group includes a young sorcerer named Simon (Justice Smith), the roguish con-man Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), and the mysterious wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). Edgin and Holga are captured, while Forge and Sofina escape with several items. After getting out of the prison, Edgin and Holga travel to the city of Neverwinter, where they find that Forge is now set up as the leader of the city, with Kira as his ward. They quickly find out that Forge has turned on them, so they set out to rob Forge’s vault. Knowing they’ll need magical help, they recruit Simon, and he points them to Doric, a druid who can transform herself into various animals. Along the way, they are pointed in the direction of a magic helmet which will allow them to enter the vault. They get the help of Xenk (Rege-Jean Page), a warrior from Thay, in recovering this item. He also provides them with information about the horrors the Red Wizards inflicted on Thay. When the heist doesn’t work out as planned, the party is captured and ends up as participants in a deadly competition against several other teams and some classic D&D monsters.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is largely successful, and much of the credit for that goes to the screenplay from directors Goldstein and Daley, along with co-writer Michael Gilio. The script does a fantastic job of approximating the feeling of D&D run under a creative Dungeon Master with a good party. The tone varies from tragedy to comedy to a great spirit of adventure. The humorous moments are well-written without falling victim to the ironic snark so often present in the Marvel films. The nature of the story means that the film has an episodic feeling at times, but the story beats connect well, and the character motivations are clear. It is easy to tell that the writers are familiar with their source material and have respect for it. Those who play Dungeons & Dragons will enjoy seeing small glimpses of Tabaxi and Aarakocra characters, as well as some well-placed easter eggs. The direction is quite good overall. The CGI is well-integrated and the action is clearly shot.

The performances of the main cast are largely strong across the board. Pine is excellent as the tragic hero fighting to regain his daughter’s love. Rodriguez is often called upon to play the stoic, tough action role, which she does here, but with threads of maternal care and starry-eyed love for her ex-husband shot through it. Grant plays the charming, smarmy villain with ease. After Paddington 2 and this film, it will be interesting to see if he carries forward with this type of role, as he is quite good at it. Daisy Head’s villain role is more straightforward, but she brings the requisite menace to it. Justice Smith does well with Simon’s early bumbling, and also successfully carries out the character’s redemptive arc. Sophia Lillis’s story is not given much attention, which is unfortunate, as she has some great moments as well. A standout character is Page’s Xenk, who only has a few scenes, but is incredibly memorable.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is highly recommended for D&D players or other fans of fantasy. My wife, who does not game and is not especially interested in the genre, also liked the film for its humor and action. I’m looking forward to any likely sequels/spinoffs.