Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (United States, 2023)

March 28, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves Poster

In order to be successful, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves needed to achieve at least three objectives: remain sufficiently faithful to its source material not to alienate the core audience, offer a broad enough story to attract non-gamers, and have sufficiently impressive production values to make the existence of the previous film a dim memory. To do this, co-directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein use the Pirates of the Caribbean template. The adventure undergone by the characters in Honor Among Thieves is a relatively generic fantasy tale but it’s peppered with enough humor and action to keep viewers engaged whether or not they have ever rolled a 20-sided die. Specific fan service is confined to Easter eggs, with various D&D-specific monsters (like the Mimic) making appearances and mainstay D&D location names (like Neverwinter and Baldur’s Gate) being either settings or getting name-checked. It’s nothing that will disturb, confuse, or isolate those with no D&D background but it will add a layer of familiarity for those with the requisite background.

The first D&D movie, which arrived in theaters in 2000 (less than a year before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring redefined the genre for film), had a scattershot feel and never got the balance right between honoring its inspiration and opening things up for a mainstream audience. It was poorly written and badly acted with its one A-list star (Jeremy Irons) locked into full Tim Curry/Rocky Horror Picture form. This time around, the filmmakers have been careful to take the D&D underpinning seriously, but not too seriously. The humor is baked-in rather than unintentional and the entire enterprise is an engaging romp. It’s a far cry from the fantastic majesty of the Tolkien-based epics but has the feel of something that could spawn an enduring franchise if it catches on.

The majority of the film’s first half is devoted to assembling the party. The starting members are Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a bard, and Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), his barbarian best friend. They have been through thick and thin together, including a misfire of a theft that landed them in prison. Edgin’s driving desire is to be re-united with his young daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), who lives under the guardianship of Edgin’s once-friend-turned-enemy, Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant). Forge has risen from a small-time rogue to the Lord of Neverwinter with the help of the red wizard, Sofina (Daisy Head). When Edgin learns that the only way to loosen Forge’s grip on the city is to deprive him of its treasury, he and Holga assemble a group with like-minded goals. Those include Simon Aumar the sorcerer (Justice Smith), Doric the druid (Sophia Lillis), and Xenk Yandar the unsmiling paladin (Rege-Jean Page). Although not always getting along, they begin their quest for the magical helmet that will allow them to achieve their goal and affect a reunion with Kira.

The narrative may seem slight compared to that of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings but it represents a good starting point for a would-be franchise and, although Honor Among Thieves tells a self-contained story, it also italicizes the direction in which future chapters could proceed. There’s a Star Wars aspect to this: use the first installment to introduce the characters and their world in a relatively light-hearted adventure then, if there’s a sequel, start going deeper and darker.

Hugh Grant is one of the recognizable names populating a high-profile cast. Grant has the most overtly comedic role but, although his tongue is often in his cheek, he avoids overplaying the fatuous elements (thereby avoiding the Irons pitfall) while instilling a sinister aspect to Forge. Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez make a great team; their platonic chemistry works and it’s fun to watch the role reversal that comes with the woman having the greater strength and fighting prowess. Rege-Jean Page, despite not having a lot of screen time, brings a quiet dignity to his part. Justice Smith and Sophia Lillis round out the group. Daisy Head’s Sophina isn’t the most intimidating of villains, although we are informed early on that she’s a minion rather than the true end-game Bad Guy.

Visually, Honor Among Thieves is as impressive as one might hope from a fantasy movie made in 2023. The 2000 Dungeons & Dragons, for all its failings, boasted solid special effects, but the new movie takes several notable steps forward. Set design is solid, with the Underdark offering some of the most impressive set pieces. The creatures are effectively rendered with a full menagerie of Monster Manual denizens on display (including a red dragon, shown in the trailer, that isn’t going to challenge Smaug for the title of Most Ferocious Winged Lizard). World-building is limited; the film’s geography is based on established D&D maps (The Forgotten Realms) and doesn’t do the best job of showing how all the locales relate to one another.

It's hard to imagine a D&D-branded movie doing a better job than this one of bringing the game to a cinematic platform. It remains to be seen whether Honor Among Thieves represents a one-off “best try” or the beginning of a D&DCU. If the former, then at least players can look at this campaign with some degree of affection because, although it lacks the interactive aspect of gameplay, it does what that designers have been unsuccessfully attempting since Gary Gygax made his first pitch to Hollywood forty years ago.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-05-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1