Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
(John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein)
Another new film in the cinema, and the first of 2023 for me. A much more auspicious debut than usual - for the past several years (leaving aside the Lost Years of the Pandemic) I've typically picked some terrible, schlocky-looking action film as the first thing to get me on the board, and it's usually come in February or March. This time I had to wait all the way until May for various reasons, and while this initially looked schlocky and dumb in it's way, the reviews seemed to belie that notion, and when I actually saw it...
First let me give you a brief background of my complicated feelings about Dungeons & Dragons. I first played the game in the late 70s I think - I'm guessing it was either at Thanksgiving or Christmas, 1978 or 79, or possibly 80, at my grandmother's house, with my cousing C---, 5 years younger than me, introducing me and my brother to it, and DMing the game. It's a powerful memory, if indistinct - powerful because it could well have been the last time I saw this cousin - we only ever saw him on these holidays, and not always then, even though he lived there; he and his parents and sister lived on the floor above my grandmother, and they didn't always join the rest of the family for the holiday - sometimes they went to the mother's family. C--- is still alive, as far as I know, but he's been in prison for the last 30 years for killing his mother and attempting to kill his father. Thankfully they didn't blame D&D for it, though they did try to blame drugs and heavy metal music for his aberrant behavior. Anyway I just remember that he used a module, and we did a dungeon crawl, and all the characters were absurdly powerful, with his paladin character having a bunch of artifacts and magical powers that I found later is not usual for such characters. Flash forward a few years and I start playing the game in college in the spring of 1984, and immediately become a fairly serious gamer, continuing this through the next 10 years or so, making several good friends through it, including my longest-lasting one, my former girlfriend K----, who may visit me this weekend for the second time since I've been out of the hospital. She still plays games 3-4 times a week; I haven't played any since probably around 1999-2000. But it's still in my blood, and I'm actually reading the first Dragonlance series right now, or re-reading it - did I read it before, did I just play some of the modules? It's too wispy in the dim recesses of the brain to be sure. And I saw the first two D&D movies years ago, which were respectively godawful and not very good. So...
Despite the good reviews and comments from some here, I was just about blown away by how awesome
this was. Not only did it actually hit most of the notes I'd want as an old-school gamer, not only did it have just about the right balance of humor and seriousness, but it was incredibly well-paced, the action scenes were just the way I like them - intense but fairly short, even the climactic battle, no 45-minute endless slogs here, the photography and art direction were some of the best I've seen in an American genre film in the past few years - colorful and vibrant without being over-the-top, and communicating a world of fantasy and pseudo-medieval earthy splendors that seemed to jump right out of those modules and books from 40 years ago (and later, I suppose). So many of the spells and beasts were familiar to me, and so many of them were used with a real sense of fun or purpose - I liked the way timestop was employed in particular, and I LOVED the use of the owlbear - which my friends and I all used to think was absolutely the stupidest creature in the books - as one of the heroes' saving gambits. The cast was pretty terrific - Chris Pine as the mostly comic (but tortured - just a bit) Bard/Thief, Michelle Rodriguez as the tough no-nonsense Fighter/Barbarian, Regé-Jean Page as the literalist Paladin (I've played with characters EXACTLY like him), Justice Smith as fumbling Mage, and Sophia Lillis as shape-changing Druid. For once the villains were pretty good too - often a weakness in fantasy films, and a lot of action films generally - with Daisy Head cool and merciless as an evil Red Wizard and Hugh Grant as the obvious turncoat, playing-both-sides con-artist. I really can't think of many complaints here; perhaps there was a bit too much of old hoary psychological cliches in the makeup of some of the characters - the only thing to fear is fear itself, you can't live your life in regret, etc, etc, particularly in a scene or two in the second half - but overall this was just an enormous bit of fun, with a real sense of adventure that didn't rely on pure fighting and running and explosions for most of it's length. The most fun such film I can think of since.... shit, I have no idea. Maybe since the 80s, which is the era that certainly was brought back for this old-school AD&D fan.
I do wish we'd gotten to see a Beholder
at the end though.