”What Madness Is This?”
Random guard in the final act
It seemed ages since I last watched a Fantasy movie that was not a Marvel film, so when the Family suggested a visit to watch Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves*, I jumped at the chance.
*The Studios title the film using the American Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, but the American spelling annoys me, so the English version is used throughout the review.
The Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves screenplay is written by John Francis Daley (Spiderman Home Coming) & Michael Gilio (Kwik Stop) based on a story created by Chris McKay (2wks, 1yr) and Michael Gilio
In the 1980’s cartoon series, a group are transported to the world of Dungeons and Dragons, to my surprise in this film, it’s the audience who are transported straight into the D&D world, not the characters. It seems a conscious choice to start the film in a dungeon from which our Heroes will have to escape. It’s here we are introduced to Chris Pine’s Edgin and Michelle Rodriguez’s Holga with Pine providing an opening monologue to rival anything Galadriel says in The Fellowship of The Ring. It’s a clever bit of writing as by the time Pine is finished, the audience are fully emersed in this fantasy world, fully aware of the plot and mission to come. It’s also an opening sequence that firmly cements Honour Among Thieves as family film, with the sort of toned-down action sequences and light comedy younger audiences will enjoy.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that what I initially thought was a clever bit of writing is just a wafer-thin story of an evil Red Wizard seducing a power-hungry human, so that he does her bidding, whilst he kidnaps Edgin’s daughter, turns her against her farther, and plots to steal a boat load (literally) of gold. What the wizard really wants is to kill everyone or turn them into slaves, or reincarnate an even bigger Red Wizard; to be honest, her plot is very ambiguous.
Simply put, the plot is saving the girl, defeating the bad guy, stopping the wizard, saving the city.
To do this our protagonists must travel around the board, no I mean map, no I mean country?! creating an ensemble of various characters all with differing abilities so they can go onto quest after quest, to achieve their purpose. Let’s be honest it’s not the most overly ambitious plot ever told (even if it does have the fattest Dragon you have ever seen) in fact if you’ve watched any quest-based fantasy film, this Dungeons and Dragons brings nothing new to the table, but then it was never supposed to.
Dungeons and Dragons has a fan base stretching over 50 years. For the film to be successful it needs to play well to existing enthusiasts, whilst simultaneously finding a new audience. Something that last few D&D films spectacularly failed to do. So, the writers needed to bring in elements of the gameplay and wrap it up in something familiar and accessible, using reference points from other successful fantasy and horror franchises to achieve that aim. I spotted scenes reminiscent of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Army of Darkness, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings and a little Jason and the Argonauts thrown in for good measure.
We are moving to Plan B,C and A again
The role-playing game the film is based on asks its players to embark on a campaign (quest to you and me) making up the story up on the spot, forcing them to constantly react to situations. Adapting and thinking of plans and using their characters specific powers. To echo this on film, the writers ensured that Chris Pine’s Edgin Is the man with a plan – acting much like a Gamemaster, he is constantly spelling out what their next plan is and after witnessing Chris Pine say for the 20th time, we are moving to Plan B,C and A again, I just really wanted everyone to just get on with it. Unfortunately, they don’t. As expected, the game references extend all the way through the film, it’s like the writers played D&D whilst writing the screen play, lifting dialogue, story ideas and spells directly from their game. In fact, whilst watching the film my mind wandered off and I started to imagine the production team sitting round a large table rolling their 20-sided dice and saying things like – “I role a 10 and enter a cave avoiding the Intellect Devourer” or “The Red Wizard has cast an Animated Gold Dragon I role a 2 and hit it with my reinforced Axe that needs cleaning.”
To the D&D game fan this must be exhilarating but to the average audience / family that have little exposure to the game the self-exposition gets a bit grating, especially when things appear on screen for literally no purpose. (Intellect Devourer I’m looking at you). The game play references continue with a wonderfully blatant Deus Ex Machina* moment when our heroes are confronted with a no-win situation when, out of nowhere, a staff suddenly becomes a portal gun (the writers must have rolled a 10 for that one).
(* I refer to the Latin Duex Ex Machina ‘God from the machine’ and not the 2014 Film of the same name)
Another trait I noticed, is when the script wanders too much into the fantasy world, the writers introduce comedy moments to snap back audience engagement. It worked on our younger family members, but for me the comedy felt forced and obvious. At the end of a scene when the group wake the dead for questioning, (they are restricted to a 5-question rule as the writers must have thrown a 1 at this point) one dead was left awake as he had only been asked 4 questions …ohh my sides are splitting! I did quite like the Chancellor Jarnathan Joke that bookends the start and end of the film though.
This script for D & D feels like it is assembled from a parts bin of script ideas and influences, but is missing that spark to kick it into life. The Last of Us (although aimed at an older audience) has shown how a popular game franchise can be transported to mainstream entertainment and be both original and captivating. Even Netflix’s own Stranger Things’ blatant stab at Dungeons and Dragons lore works better with its darker tones. So perhaps Hasbro should have gone for an older audience with the fantasy horror turned to the max, and creating something unique and leave the family entertainment to Disney?
Emmy award winning casting director Victoria Thomas (The Last of Us) is overseeing casting for Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, putting together a large ensemble of both A list stars and up and coming talent such as Sophia Lillis (as Doric) who is by far the best supporting actor in this film. As ever, here are the three that caught our eye.
Chris Pines character is Edgin, a Dungeon and Dragon Bard. Bards are the 6th most powerful character (yes, I looked that up) and require a good support group around them, able to perform a few magical spells including healing ones with healing properties. So, it is apt then, that Edgin leads the group on its merry way. The problem I have with Edgin is that he doesn’t appear powerful and his purpose in the film is confused, it he a family man? is he a thief? Is he mercenary? Does he have any powers? Well, he is all of that depending on the scene. All this leads Chris Pine to over act his way through film, making up for character shortcomings by simply over exaggerating. This is not just me saying that. The trailer describes it as ‘the most Chris Pine Performance’ and it’s not wrong. It reminded me of watching the early series of Star Trek and watching William Shatner over … deliver ….each and…. every…..line, then link that to Chris Pine’s portrayal of Captain Kirk, in the Kelvin timeline films. In Honour Amongst Thieves, Pine appears to have taken those performances as his inspiration, then amps it up so much that I thought I was watching Pine playing Kirk on an away mission to some alien world and I couldn’t shake that thought all the way through the film.
Pine’s ambitions to give his character some semblance of personality mean that he pushes the comedy moments a little too hard, coming across as forced slapstick rather than an organically funny performance. Contrast Pine’s performance of Edgin with a similar fantasy lead – Henry Cavill’s portrayal of ‘The Witcher’, and you will see what I mean. Cavill’s Witcher is understated, has tons of chemistry with his cast and the comedy comes from his character, without over acting and that’s the type of performance that would have benefited Pine and this film massively.
I mostly know Michelle Rodriguez for being ‘Dom’s Girl’ on the Fast Saga. So, I was surprised to see Rodriguez in a leading role, especially one as physical as Holga. Holga is a barbarian with an axe and its spot-on casting as Rodriguez seems so comfortable in the role. Contrasting Pine’s exaggerated performance with something more physical. It helps that Holga is a more defined character, simply put, she’s a Barbarian thief, her power is her physicality and Rodriguez’s trademark gravelly voice brings the character to life. Rodriguez seems to be channelling her inner Zena Warrior Princess as she swinges her big axe and takes out the bad hench men and creatures, whilst quipping some one-liners. Scene after scene, her action sequences are the best in the film, and its refreshing to see a women character that outshines the men by some margin. Its not all skull cracking though, Rodriguez allows herself some sensitive moments, including a fun cameo by Bradley Cooper. It’s the axe wielding which makes her come alive, hopefully inspiring a new generation of film watchers, game players and strong-minded women in her wake.
Forge is your typical movie slimeball. A thief, a liar, a friend that betrays for greed, power, and money, whilst being seduced and played like a fiddle by a woman (The Red Wizard). The character does Grant a total disservice, as he has nothing to work with. He ends the film the same as he started it, and as Forge’s purpose and actions are what essentially created the narrative of the story, he literally puts ‘Thieves’ into the title.
This lack of character could explain why, that in Dungeons and Dragons (something about thieves), Grant seems to be playing the same bad guy that he plays is in Operation Fortune, even slipping into the same accent with a lisp in a couple of scenes. I wondered if the two films where filmed close to each other. With Grant seemingly making a pivot to be the De Facto British bad guy lately.:
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves 2023
Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre 2023
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery 2022
I would have thought he would be reaching for new ways to portray his talents or is this all he has got?
Lorne Balfe has scored Dungeons and Dragons Honour Amongst Thieves. Having Previously scored the recent instalments of Mission Impossible and supplied a hand on the Top Gun: Maverick score.
Balfe is reportedly a Dungeons fan, having played the game in his youth. When given the project, Balfe knew exactly what he wanted to do with the score. Creating 42 tracks that are heavily influenced by a Celtic soundscape, harking back to his Scottish roots. The idea is to take the Audience on a fantastical journey, and to that end it works well, but that’s not to say it’s a great score.
The title track Dungeons and Dragons sounds generic like a meld of, Star Wars, Braveheart and 80’s British TV show Going for Gold (scored by Balfe’s friend Zimmer, this film needed Space Bagpipes!) For the most part, the score just sits in the background breathing life into some otherwise standard scenes, Balfe never seems to push the envelope. Some weeks after watching the film I can’t remember a single riff or tune that I could Identify as directly linked to Honour Among Thieves. The fact that the film is set up for a sequel and has ‘Franchise’ written all over it, makes the lack of audible identity for such a blockbuster unusual.
Listening to the score independently from the film, its short tracks move at pace, and the Celtic influences are front and centre. It’s a fantasy score one would expect to hear in a gift shop in Glastonbury, you know the ones that sell mystic candles and scents, rather than a major motion picture. It’s all a bit Enya!
This is an effect heavy film, and the films creative team is an extensive list of Art department, Makeup, VFX etc. This talent shows on screen. I particularly noticed Costume Designer Amanda Monk’s work. Monk’s career to date has mostly been on TV series such as ‘This Time with Alan Partridge’, but after seeing her work on Dungeons, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood comes calling again, as the costumes from creatures such as Jonathan, through to the humanoid characters all look fantastic. Turning my attention to the VFX I did notice a few effects shots that look unfinished, such a scene when the group of Thieves are walking in front of a volcano and the group look obviously superimposed. The detail in some of the creatures also looked a little lacking, look at the podgy Red Dragon vs the Games of Thrones dragon, and you will see what I what I mean. It’s something the casual viewer probably wouldn’t notice, but in a film literally titled ‘Dragons’, I would have thought more emphasis would have been put into the details.
Continuing the Game Night connections, Cinematographer Barry Peterson is onboard. Game Night was a film much smaller in scale with a mostly subdued colour palette. Dungeons is a much more grandiose, in your face affair. Peterson having to manage large scale studio set pieces, locations, and a vibrant colour palette. Just like the score, the cinematography is functional and not stand out. A film of this budget should be a cinematographer’s dream, a way to make a personal stamp on a genre, like Roger Deakins achieved when filming Skyfall, but despite some creative use of drone shots and CGI there is nothing stand out. Dungeons looks like any other modern fantasy genre film – generic.
Watching D&D it becomes clear that the writers know exactly who their audience are, both die-hard game fans and the family audience. It’s also clear that the production team had a difficult time balancing the need to satisfy the game’s passionate fan base and the needs of a family audience. The result is an average fantasy film with an unoriginal story line and a cast overcompensating. Perhaps burned by earlier box office disasters, those involved seem to have opted for a middle of the road approach, and it hasn’t landed well. Several weeks after release, the marketing has slapped on a ‘No Experience Necessary’ message, which is either an attempt at humour, or an attempt to convey to non-game fans it’s a film they can watch.
Younger audiences may find it enjoyable, older audiences will find a tad boring and the game fans will say is the best adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons ever made. To me though, it’s perfectly suited as the type of film that would go on ITV over a Bank Holiday weekend, much the same way they seem to play Jason and the Argonauts every Easter.
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Jonathan Goldstein … (screenplay by) &
John Francis Daley … (screenplay by) and
Michael Gilio … (screenplay by)
Chris McKay … (story by) & Michael Gilio
Chris Pine … Edgin
Michelle Rodriguez … Holga
Regé-Jean Page … Xenk
Justice Smith … Simon
Sophia Lillis … Doric
Coin Firth … Forge
Chloe Coleman … Kira
Daisy Head … Sofina
Kyle Hixon … Guard
Spencer Wilding … Gorg
Will Irvine … Tobias
Nicholas Blane … Chancellor Anderton
Bryan Larkin … Chancellor Norixius / Dragonborn Vagrant
Sarah Amankwah … Baroness Torbo
Colin Carnegie … Elvin High Harper
Georgia Landers … Zia
Sophia Nell Huntley … Young Kira
Clayton Grover … Chancellor Jarnathan
San Shella … Barkeep
Barry O’Connor … Blackwood
Avril Murphy … Triboar Heckler
Neil Stoddart …
Adam Behan … Triboar Heckler
Dan Poole … Executioner
Natali Servat … Wood Elf Prisoner
Ian Hanmore … Szass Tam
Paul Bazely … Porb Piradost
Kenneth Collard … Din Caldwell
Jason Wong … Dralas
Hayley-Marie Axe … Gwinn
Darren Kent … ‘Yes’ Corpse
Claude Starling … Toke Horgath Corpse / Sven Salafin Corpse
Richie Wilson … Toke Horgath
Philip Brodie … Stanhard Grimwulf
Paul Lancaster … Stanhard Grimwulf Corpse / Ven Salafin Corpse
Michael Redmond … Sven Salafin
Daniel Campbell … Ven Salafin
Bridie Mayfield … Tabaxi Mom
Sharon Blynn … Dimitra Flass
Rylan Jackson … Young Xenk
Appy Pratt … Ishira
David Durham … Ethereal Plane Sorcerer
Harriet Barrow … Castle Guard
Justice Ritchie … Castle Guard
Adrian Christopher … Driftwood Tavern Guard
Richard Hall … Dragonborn Contestant
Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle … Wizard Contestant
Fionnlagh Allan … Barbarian Contestant
Edd Osmond … Cleric Contestant
Niamh McCormack … Rogue Contestant
Anton Simpson-Tidy … Ranger Contestant
Luke Bennett … Bobby (as Luke Bennet)
Moe Sasegbon … Diana
Trevor Kaneswaran … Eric
Emer McDaid … Sheila
Seamus O’Hara … Presto
Edgar Abram … Hank
Tom Morello … Kimathi Stormhollow
R.F. Daley … Harbourmaster Jimn
Jude Hill … Boy in Stands
Richard Croxford … Lord Neverember
Rylee Neilly-Large … Young Forge
Former community radio producer and presenter, and currently an office worker by day and blogger by night.
Garry is the creator and writer of The Silver Hedgehog. A Sci-Fi geek (don’t mention Terry Pratchett or Isaac Asimov unless you have a spare hour) and avid lover of all things film and TV fan . Garry enjoys writing reviews, blogs, chatting to people and now hosts a podcast in his spare time.
He is now waiting for the day he gets paid for it!