Entertainment

‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ Is Delightful Nerd Bait

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The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is a daunting prospect, seeming to require both intense focus and a spirit of free-wheeling improvisation. Though a staple of the nerd arts, D&D has long been a bridge too far for people like me, who are admittedly intrigued by its vast lore but are put off by the idea of, y’know, actual role-playing.

There are of course novels that can be read, but they are intimidating in their number. I’ll instead—in true lazy millennial fashion—let the new film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves suffice as proof of D&D’s pleasures. The film, from co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, is a feast of fan worship that has the good sense to invite in the uninitiated. It’s homage and gentle parody at once, seeking to capture the energy of playing the game with friends rather than trying to seriously literalize an expansive world. Which makes it a fitting film to open this year’s SXSW festival, which has over the years developed a reputation as a clearing house for movies on the cleverer edges of geek culture. (The festival brought me to Austin this year as a jury member.) 

Goldstein and Daley have, in the past, collaborated on projects like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2Game Night, and Spider-Man: Homecoming as writers, directors, or both. Consistent throughout their work is a winning balance of sincerity and silliness; nothing is too smugly arch nor aggressively sentimental. That approach works quite well in Dungeons & Dragons, which is, surprisingly, just as invested in emotional currents as it is in keeping the action-comedy bouncing along. 

Chris Pine, the indoor-kid’s favorite Chris, plays Edgin, a former law enforcement agent (of a sort) turned thief who has lost his wife and become estranged from his teenage daughter. His steadfast partner in crime is Holga, a toughie played with typical stern charm by Michelle Rodriguez. At the start of the film, they are stuck in a wintry prison tower, pleading for a pardon in a manner that allows Daley and Goldstein to nimbly deliver some crucial backstory. There is a predetermined thread to follow in Dungeons & Dragons, but the film is also interested in the make-’em-up twists and turns of an actual D&D game. One could, I suppose, want for more consequential logic in the film, but that would risk spoiling the point. 

The film is built as a series of quests, as new sidekicks are accumulated—Justice Smith’s nebbish sorcerer, Simon; Sophia Lillis’s cunning shape-shifter, Doric—and various dangers are confronted. The film is stuffed with all manner of mythology and moves at frenzied pace, sometimes wobbling in its speed and density but usually regaining control just before things topple into irksome incoherence. While the film does traffic in the meta-snark that has badly infected pop culture in the last decade plus, it’s done lovingly rather than as preemptive, self-effacing rebuke. Dungeons & Dragons is not trying to be cool to impress outsiders; it is proud of its dorky fascinations and persuasive enough to sway the skeptical toward its cause. 

Or, at least, it was for me, despite the obvious formula of the film’s makeup. The cynical read on the movie is that it is simply a rival studio’s attempt to ape the maximalist bonhomie of films like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Indeed, there are several moments in Dungeons & Dragons that seem lifted directly out of the Marvel trope catalog. One could view that as Slugworth-ian theft, or more generously figure it respectful pastiche. 

Goldstein and Daley are, after all, slightly of the Marvel universe themselves. And they do manage to give familiar happenings some zesty new snap. Their action scenes are elastic and inventive, toying with physics but not relying too heavily on the empty magic of CGI. (I believe there are some honest-to-goodness practical effects in the film, too.) 

Daley and Goldstein also make great use of the analog talents of Bridgerton hunk Regé-Jean Page—playing an annoyingly virtuous hero briefly enlisted to the ragtag crew’s cause—and Hugh Grant, who gives yet another spry turn in this strange and wonderful new era of his career. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and it’s hard not to follow suit. The film’s friendliness, its eagerness to entertain and giggle alongside its audience, washes away most queasy feelings about the prefab IP construction that all this merriment is built upon.  

Or maybe that’s just a particularly potent strain of festival fever talking. Sitting among a crowd so delighted to be pandered to can be a subsuming experience, in which one forgets even one’s most closely held principles. Much like it could be, I suppose, to finally shed self-consciousness and give in to the goofy earnestness of an actual D&D game. 

This was perhaps best illustrated at the end of the great single-season series Freaks & Geeks, in which a character—played by John Francis Daley, fittingly enough—introduces a too-cool upperclassman to the wondrous, freeing possibilities of the 20-side die. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves does much the same, though it spares one the indignity of having to talk like a wizard in some kid from school’s basement.

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