Friday, March 31, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves--This movie includes more than one dungeon, and more than one dragon. Thus the title is truthful, at any rate.

Once or twice back in college--twice, if memory serves--I played Dungeons & Dragons with some of my fellow theater students. It was sort of fun, as I recall. The first time, an obnoxious kid we didn't know named Dan--not a theatre major--had somehow been invited, who seemed to think himself a great ladies' man. He named his warrior character "Dahn" and spent most of the evening drinking a lot and hitting on the young women there. When we played again a week or so later, Dan was not invited, and the Dungeon Master mildly informed us that "Dahn disagreed with something that ate him."

This was in the early '80s.  I recount this story only to make it clear how limited my familiarity is with the classic role-playing fantasy game developed in the mid-'70s and now owned by Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro). I've never played D&D or any similar game since, though I have friends and family who are enthusiasts. Even at the time, I didn't really grasp how the dice rolls and "damage points" and other such jargon determined the flow of the game; I just enjoyed the socializing and improvisational creativity.

So for all I know, this new movie version, directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley from a script they concocted with Michael Gilio and Chris McKay, is a rich and faithful fleshing-out of tropes from the game. Or, for all I know, it's just a sword-and-sorcery fantasy with the franchise's name hung on it. I can't say, nor need any general audience member care; either way, it's highly entertaining.

Chris Pine is a lute-strumming troubadour living in a Ren-Faire-ish realm of racial and gender diversity. A washed-up member of a heroic order, he leads a band of thieves including a warrior (Michelle Rodriguez); a sorcerer (Justice Smith) of low self-esteem and questionable prowess, and a horned and tailed elfin person (Sophia Lillis) who can shape-shift into various other creatures, including a brawny monster owl.

They're on a quest to obtain some sort of magical thingy that will allow them to enter a magic vault from which they want to steal some other magical thingy. This will allow the troubadour to resurrect his murdered wife. Along the way the band is helped by a noble but humorlessly literal paladin (Regé-Jean Page from Bridgerton).

This synopsis does the movie little justice, however. D&DHAT isn't heavy. Despite all the thundering hordes and clanking armor and clashing steel and roiling brimstone and mystical spells and hideous ogres and such, the flavor is less like a Tolkien epic than like a Hope-Crosby Road comedy. The guiding joke is that the characters, notwithstanding their fairy tale attire, speak and interact in a contemporary American idiom, like people on a sitcom. There's an extended schtick, involving questioning of the dead, that's almost worthy of the Marx Brothers.

Your own tastes will determine if this approach makes the movie a blast or an outrage. For me, it not only made it less ponderous, but more emotionally satisfying. The actors generate an ensemble playfulness and a sense of affection. Pine retains his raffish agreeability, and he and Rodriguez are particularly convincing as longtime, patiently enduring friends.

But once again, the best reason to see the film, even if this sort of fantasy isn't your usual tankard of mead, is Hugh Grant. He plays the rotten mountebank who betrayed Pine and friends back in the day. Since then, with the alliance of a sinister sorceress (Daisy Head), this fraud has ascended to the throne of the kingdom; it's his vault the gang wants to loot, and he's also, intolerably, been serving as the surrogate father to Pine's daughter (Chloe Coleman).

Between this movie, the recent Operation Fortune and 2017's Paddington 2, Grant has quite a line these days in cheery, good-natured comic villains. The scenes he steals here are the most honorable theft in the movie.

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