Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves: The Kotaku Australia Review

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves: The Kotaku Australia Review

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is Pirates of the Caribbean for people who love the world’s most popular role-playing game. It’s a fizzy, safe, enjoyable popcorn movie rollercoaster based on an unlikely property that succeeds far beyond the meagre expectations set by its abysmal and abortive 2000 predecessor.

I’m going to avoid major plot spoilers in this review, but we are going to get into discussions about some character and game stuff, so if you’d rather not know before you go, here’s your spoiler warning. Come back and have a read once you’ve seen the film!

Kotaku AU Spoiler Warning
Image: Kotaku Australia

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves follows a party of heroes that make up four of D&D‘s archetypal character classes as they attempt to save the city of Neverwinter from a plot by the villainous Red Wizards of Thay.  They are: Edgin the bard, played by Chris Pine, Holga the barbarian, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Simon the sorcerer, played by Justice Smith, and Doric the druid, played by IT‘s Sophia Lillis. Also in the mix is the heroic but humourless paladin Xenk, played by Regé-Jean Page and former party member, Forge the rogue, brought to life in a memorably oily performance by Hugh Grant.

Edgin and Holga are the film’s beating heart. Honour Among Thieves is ultimately about the strength of their friendship and how they became an unlikely duo and unofficial parental unit. The people they know and care about are drawn into their orbit by the strength of their bond, and the feeling of it expanding around them. As the party continues its adventures, the bond between them grows until they can no longer operate effectively when separated.

I know, I know — a D&D story about found family? They really do know how this game is played.

Embarking on a life of crime in the wake of his wife’s untimely demise, Edgin hopes to secure an artifact with the power to bring her back from the dead. He fails, spectacularly. Edgin and Holga begin their story in the bowels of Revel’s End, Icewind Dale’s tower prison, and Edgin brings the audience up to speed with a quick trip to the department of backstory. This is something the film will do a few times — every D&D player knows that a good backstory is important. They usually have something to do with a traumatic event, your parents, or a traumatic event involving your parents. From there, the story flits to several well-known locations, including Neverwinter, Triboar and a memorable trip to the Underdark, setting the stakes and introducing its core cast of characters and their abilities, before returning to Neverwinter for the grand finale.

Edgin, as a character, is not the kind of bard one imagines when thinking of D&D‘s most musical character class. He’s a planner, a charmer, and he uses his musical abilities as a distraction more than for any meaningful performance. Unlike a lot of bard characters that have come and gone in the history of D&D, Edgin isn’t a flirt. He’s a romantic at heart, but there’s no-one that captures his interest because he doesn’t consider himself ‘on the market’. So convinced is he that his plans will eventually lead to the resurrection of his beloved wife that he hasn’t ever considered the idea that he might actually be a widower and need to move on. It’s a strong and refreshing take on a class that always seems to be picked by the worst and grossest horndog you know. Edgin is a scoundrel and a schemer, yes, but he’s not a cad. What the film handles less well is communicating the abilities of Edgin’s class. The movie never explains how bards, a vital and interesting character class, support their party. Edgin spends the whole movie giving his friends Bardic Inspiration, but the film never makes it look like the magic that it is. As a result, compared to his far flashier counterparts, Pine’s character comes across as A Funny Guy With A Lute, which is both a dated view of the class and disappointing for those that understand their true value in a group. You could argue, I suppose, that inspiring your friends to achieve great things is a kind of magic and, while I don’t necessarily disagree, it isn’t terribly interesting to look at on film.

Holga is one of the more interesting interpretations of a barbarian I’ve seen in media that pulls from the D&D lineage. Like Edgin, the film doesn’t go out of its way to demonstrate the thing that is the core of her class — her rage. Instead, it paints Holga in an infinitely more sympathetic light. Thrown out of her tribe after she fell in love with a halfling, it would be easy for the film the play the size difference between Holga and her ex (in a surprise cameo by Bradley Cooper) purely for laughs. And while, initially, their brief dynamic may get a laugh, their conversation demonstrates that each has a deep understanding of the other. That, though they failed to make the relationship work, they both know and understand that they did everything they could to save it, and that their love will endure, even as they move on with their lives. It’s terribly sad, but it’s also quite beautiful in its way. Making the barbarian the most emotionally mature member of the party is a clever swerve I admit I did not see coming.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves often feels like it’s pelting fans with small pieces of information they’ll know. Names, places, spells, even game mechanics like attuning to weapons are mentioned in passing, and some play a direct role in the story. The fantasy world of The Forgotten Realms, the world in which the current 5th Edition ruleset of Dungeons & Dragons is set, is realised in exacting detail within the film. As the film played out before me, it struck me again and again how strange it was to hear the names of places I’ve been visiting in my imagination since childhood spoken out loud in the movie theatre. Neverwinter. Baldur’s Gate. Waterdeep. A setting created by Ed Greenwood in the late 1960s as a world in which he could set his childhood stories, the Forgotten Realms are integral part of the Dungeons & Dragons mythos now. To see it on screen, and to get down to street level in a city like Neverwinter, is extremely cool for an old timer like me.

However, despite going out of its way to throw in all these winks and nudges for longtime fans, some of it is occasionally to the film’s detriment.

For instance! Omitted entirely: dice, the game’s famous mathematical fulcrum. There are no rolls, there are no polyhedral shapes. Rather, audiences familiar with how the RPG works will note the moments when an unseen “roll” has succeeded or failed. The film never remarks on it, but it knows that you know what to look for.

Its view of certain character classes isn’t its only dated aspect, either. Simon, the sorcerer, spends a decent chunk of the film instigating and reinstigating a one-sided flirtation with Doric, the druid, that is clumsily handled and comes off feeling like a relic of the 2000’s. Rather than let these two characters have their awkward date be part of their backstory and then let them come together naturally over the course of the film, writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley and Michael Gilio have Simon pick up the thread again and again. At a certain point, I wanted to reach into the screen and tell him, forcefully, to let it go. She’s clearly not that into you, bro. There’s also a fat joke that comes out of absolutely nowhere and feels like a vestige of the 2000’s. It’s extremely weird, and I think I get what the writers were trying to communicate, but it doesn’t come across in the moment.

However, everything around these nitpicks is quite good fun. It’s a film with strong, if safe, characterisation, and it crams a dizzying amount of worldbuilding into its two-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time. It features the coolest-looking onscreen magic since the Warcraft movie, and its jokes are (mostly) rock solid. Crucially, it also understands that there are way more people who have not played Dungeons & Dragons than people who have, which is (I believe) what gives the film the space to cut the maths and get to the story. I will say that if you’re a parent of young children, this may not be the best movie to take them to. I can see a lot of the stuff around the Red Wizards of Thay being quite scary for the under-10s, and there are a couple of big jump scares that could really freak them out in a very loud theatre. Maybe your kids are cool and without fear! Just something to factor into your calculations.

In the end, it is a film that rolls a 16 on its performance check — more than enough to comfortably succeed and earn a pleased nod from the DMs in the crowd. If it were to take off and become one of the year’s biggest commercial hits, it would not surprise me. Though it is one of the few Hollywood blockbusters of the last few years to not directly tease a sequel, it would not surprise me to see directors Daley and Goldstein get the green light to make one.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves releases in Australian theatres on Thursday, March 30. There are preview screenings happening around the country over the week or so, however, so be sure to check your local theatres for times (and thank you Paramount Australia for spelling ‘Honour’ correctly for the local release. It was going to drive me mad if you didn’t.)

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