The team behind Game Night offer a peppy spin on the classic 1970s roleplaying game, with Chris Pine as a rogue seeking revenge on those who have wronged him.
Among his many crimes, Joss Whedon is responsible for a seismic change in the style of dialogue favoured in modern fantasy film and television. The quippy, “so, that just happened” speech patterns that have plagued the scripts of many a production can be traced back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly – and while for a brief period this snappy sound was novel, when it became the de rigueur formula for Marvel movies and most Hollywood blockbusters, the result was a world where films failed to take their own conceits seriously.
Gone were the days of the earnest fantasy yarn, with the likes of Lord of the Rings and Labyrinth – films which delivered strangeness with a straight face – but a distant memory. Everything was irony poisoned, and characters had to point out the absurdity of their situation every two minutes, in a way that was almost as jarring as an actor looking straight into the camera and saying “Hey, isn’t this weird?!”
The inability for modern fantasy to be delivered with an ounce of sincerity seems at odds with IP like Dungeons and Dragons – a roleplaying game that, while absurd in its seemingly infinite capacity for chaos among its dedicated players, has the weight of 50 years of pop culture history behind it, which perhaps deserves a modicum of reverence. After three fairly poor previous iterations, the task landed with Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who previously worked on the rather good board game comedy-thriller Game Night.
Perhaps it’s a respect for the source material that helps Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (awful title, by the way) retain a sort of sincerity that’s been missing from the genre. Although the script does have a zippy, wisecracking feel, there’s also an earnestness at play: the characters embrace the strangeness of their world without ever feeling the need to remark on it. In short, this is a film that is fun while also taking its premise somewhat seriously.
Adapted from the roleplaying game rather than incorporating that element into it, the plot follows Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a former man of honour turned jobbing thief, and his barbarian accomplice Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) who, following an ambitious prison break, set out to find the former accomplices who betrayed them during a heist two years prior, so they can reunite with Edgin’s daughter and, er, bring his wife back from the dead. As far as plots go, it’s standard fare for the fantasy genre – fighting beasts, meeting colourful characters, and learning how to be an honourable person – with no real ambition on display, but a simple premise well-executed is often better than the alternative.
The cast have conviction too, and Pine in particular gets a chance to flex his comedic muscles that are often overlooked. He’s well-matched with Rodriguez, even if she is essentially playing her Fast & Furious character with an axe instead of a Nissan 240SX, and as an ensemble, the group mimics the dynamic of a real D&D group with their complimentary skill sets. The most entertaining element is probably Hugh Grant’s luvvy con artist Forge Fitzwilliam – it’s a medieval rehash of his delightful turn in Paddington 2, but when it works this well, who can blame him for recycling a bit?
If there’s a stumbling block, it’s the film’s slightly flat CGI. It would have been great to see more practical effects or puppetry used to bring the magical world to life – which also would have nodded to the DIY spirit of the source material. But the film seems aimed squarely at a family audience, and this isn’t distracting enough to count as a catastrophic failure, with the charisma of its cast enough to paper over the cracks, and some nifty stunt work a solid compromise.
Hollywood has always struggled to adapt games into films, and perhaps it’s a case of the bar being so low that anything that manages to clear it immediately looks better by comparison, but Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves (seriously, was there no better option for that title?) feels like solid evidence that the fantasy blockbuster isn’t dead in the water. It’s possible to create a charming action epic that harks back to the likes of A Knight’s Tale and The Dark Crystal without feeling dated, and the curse of sarcastic Whedonite dialogue might have finally been lifted.
Little White Lies is committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them.
By becoming a member you can support our independent journalism and receive exclusive essays, prints, monthly film recommendations and more.
Published 31 Mar 2023
Here we go again…
A pleasant surprise – Pine has charm to spare.
Not especially memorable, but a fun way to pass the time.