Nothing suddenly speeds up the snail’s pace of social progress like the opportunity for mega-corps to profit. Like smoking the reefer and pleasurable physical contact, Dungeons and Dragons was once seen as a gateway for Satan to turn us into sock puppets. Now, the role-playing experience is being reimagined as a big-budget gateway for executives to turn us into sock puppets. Progress!
To be fair, if C-suite inhabitants are going to Pinocchio us, we could do far, far worse than “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.” Featuring funny moments that dare to go beyond lazy one-liners and sporting genuinely exhilarating action set pieces, “Thieves” is as close as an adaptation can come to capturing the chaos and comedy of actually playing D&D. A staggeringly simple quest is made messy by meandering heroes who frequently make mistakes due to hubris and excitement. That sounds about right… Perhaps the best compliment possible: If this had arrived during my preteen years, I’d likely have a tattoo of it by now.
As all D&D adventures do, “Thieves” starts with character building. Edgin (Chris Pine) is a charmingly mischievous bard whose “gift” is coming up with strategies and plots that are slightly better than horrible alternatives. He’s been imprisoned with his pal, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a burly brute whose gruff menace is a front for her teddy bear heart. The pair escape in order to rescue Edgin’s daughter from a roguish conman named Forge (Hugh Grant), who is in league with an evil sorceress, Sofina (Daisy Head), who fronts a death cult.
Once free, Edgin and Holga team up with a shape-shifting elf named Doric (Sophia Lillis) and a semi-sorcerer named Simon (Justice Smith). The quest is textbook D&D: To rescue the girl, they need an item in a vault. To get into the vault, they need a magic helmet. To get the magic helmet, they need to talk to Xenk (Regé-Jean Page). It’s side-quests all the way down, even if you know it will all conclude with an epic fight against the main baddie. You can practically hear the dice rolling. Or taste them, if you were one of those weirdos who put 20-sided die in your mouth as a kid. The allure of D&D holds sway with all sorts, and there is no judgment here…
Like a game run by a dungeon master with generalized anxiety and ADHD, so most dungeon masters, “Thieves” is a bit narratively frantic to start. Intent on establishing the world and plot trappings, a lot of “telling” and flashbacking precedes the actual adventure. Once it gets rolling though, it is about as good as anyone had any reasonable right to hope it could be.
From the moment Xenk shows up, “Thieves” is hotter than a chubby dragon’s vomited flame. Writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, along with writers Michael Gilio and Chris McKay, hit the sweet spot right between the eyes of serious and silly. They are sincere in their approach to the mythology and action and never break kayfabe when it comes to characters. No “winks and nods” to fourth walls or adaptations can be found among the copious easter eggs die-hard fans can hunt.
It isn’t that “Thieves” is rousingly original. It isn’t. Not even a little. It is formulaic, but not to a fault so much as to a purpose. This is a tightrope walk between servicing a legion of lore lovers and introducing what is unfairly seen as an intimidating world of imagination and adventure. It needed to be safe enough for newbs and thrilling enough for loyalists. It is all of that and more. D&D is fun. “Thieves” is fun. Both have limitless potential, and neither should be put off. Get thee to a theater and then get thee to a gaming table. Or vice versa, depending on how you roll.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Amy Nicholson at The New York Times says “Having sat in on my share of D&D campaigns, my personal idea of purgatory is five people debating whether to open a door. Luckily, the film moves faster.”
John Lui at the Straits Times (Singapore) says “Where this is similar to ‘Warcraft’ is that both are unironic, non-snarky adaptations. ‘Warcraft,’ however, clubs viewers over the head with lore. This story is far easier to follow even if one cannot tell a paladin from a Harper or a druid from a Red Wizard.”
Catalina Combs at Black Girl Nerds says “It speaks to the love of legends and folklore heroes like Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers. It’s wholesome and we haven’t had a good family flick like this in a while. I can’t say enough how fun and funny this film was.”