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A sharpened gourd?


Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves


The most impressive thing about Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is that someone clearly thought it could be a major hit. Unless they were angling for a major tax write-off. Investing $150m in a property – a well-known property, but one boasting a prior, infamous failure in adapting it – is likely going to require in the region of half a billion takings to make a profit, and as breezy as this movie often is, it’s closer to the ’80s cartoon series in tone than the sombre Warcraft a few years back (the nearest genre equivalent I can think of; it did significantly better business but not enough to guarantee a continuation). Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a good fun, but if it could be argued Warcraft made too few concessions to general audiences, the opposite might be said here.

Perhaps the unqualified success of Stranger Things had some influence in getting a new Dungeons and Dragons movie made (it had been in development hell for a decade). There, most of the young hero geeks are devotees of the game, which is shown to have real-world demonic counterparts, inviting a rather laborious satanic-panic plotline, one that rather ironically fails to sell its message (after all, these kids’ activities ARE connected to demonic/satanic goings-on in Montauk/Hawkins). A Variety piece mentions the Stranger Things effect while doing the usual scouring of anything – superheroes – that has been repurposed and resold for mass consumption (“For years, D&D was seen as the exclusive domain of nerds….” Nice try, but I don’t think it’s wholly changed, certainly not to the extent of a “major cultural resurgence”. It’s no Super Mario Bros). 

Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves’ use of wizardry, sorcery and demonica is largely innocuous by comparison, steering clear of horror-movie motifs – unless you find a levitating bald chick terrifying – and positions itself rather closer in action-comedy-adventure terms to something like the Jumanji reboot/sequel. Writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley previously made the surprisingly decent Game Night, not exactly an obvious audition piece, although the connective tissue is clear when you place them next to each other.

GoldsteinThat was not an attempt at wokeness on our part.
DaleySwear to God, it wasn’t. We liked that Holga is the bruiser that does the dirty work for Edgin, and he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. We also love emasculating leading men. 
Goldstein: Not for woke reasons!
DaleyJust because it’s funny and fun and fresh.

In promoting Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, the directors were asked (by Variety, in the afore-linked piece) about their wokesense in portraying super-capable women and much less-so men. They denied any agenda (above), with the valid (on its own terms) argument “We like our male heroes to be challenged and not simply heroic”. Which, to give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment, would simply mean their approach very conveniently fits exactly what Hollywood has been demanding for the past half-decade or so (and is now being used overtly as a tool to engineer its collapse. Exhibit A: Disney).

It just so happens that, fitting prescriptions, the men here are failures of some description, and the women are super-butch and kickass (Michelle Rodriguez) or super-magical (Sophia Lillis). There is a super-capable man, Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page’s paladin Xenk Yendar, and this status was called out sight unseen by Baggage Claim in Critical Drinker’s After Hours (for the patented progressive reason of racial politics). D&D and Daley’s quote were the focus of After Hours’ discussion, particularly the idea that such an approach was “funny and fun and fresh”, but Drinker subsequently had to admit the movie was decent enough and not a prime example of the woke scourge in full effect. 

While it may be dutifully found observing Hollywood’s prime directive of truly multicultural, feminist SF or fantasy worlds – so reinventing them in precisely the obverse direction to their origins – the movie’s without the hindrance of impressing this upon established and beloved characters. So in contrast to Tolkien or Star Trek/Wars, say, it’s going to be met with a shrug of “Oh, it’s one of those”; there’s no desecration of lore or tropes, but equally little that would draw the faithful or the impartial potential audience member. Same old, same old. Indeed, G Allen Johnson highlighted the somewhat mechanical, formula engineering, as if Chat GPT had been asked to “‘Write a Marvel movie except with Dungeons & Dragons characters.’ Seconds later, this spit out“.

Which is both fair and does a slight disservice to Goldstein and Daley being better-than-average Hollywood wordsmiths. It is however, the case that the movie is smooth-running, serviceable and unremarkable to a fault, and boasts a complementary smooth, serviceable and unremarkable cast. If you miss it, you won’t have the lingering feeling you’re missing anything vital. 

Goldstein and Daly suggested Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thievesdoesn’t take itself with great seriousness, but it’s never a spoof”. Which was probably their contribution (as two of five credited writers) to Spider-Man: Homecoming. They also, less convincingly, suggested the attraction of the movie was “seeing the potential to bring what we had brought to small- and medium-sized movies to a much bigger canvas”. Because Honour Among Thieves never feels that big. It doesn’t feel like a $150m movie, regardless of all the FX and occasional ingeniously devised sequences – in particular, Doric escaping Forge’s castle via a serious of deft transformations, and anything involving using the teleportation staff’s portals during the heist – because, versatile as they are, the duo aren’t those kind of grand-scale filmmakers.

Without a complete list, it’s difficult to identify for certain just who is real and who is fake in the average Hollywood movie post-2020. Or further still, how many “live-action” movies are made outside of a computer screen. If someone’s busier than ever, is it because their clone is being rigorously put through its paces or they have a tip-top CGI model available? Or is it because the actor or artiste concerned is now in so much greater demand, following the cull? Guy Ritchie’s clone’s output has been prodigious since he expired, and his former – or continuing, as clones – collaborator Hugh Grant is also being put to good use. Grant’s got as many movie appearances completed or upcoming since 2022 as he did in the previous decade. They seem to be calling on one of his better performance programmes too, the unscrupulous toad who made The Gentlemen so entertaining. Grant’s Forge Fitzwilliam is the nominally chief rotter here (acting dynasty Daisy Head’s Red Wizard Sofina is the actual chief).

Grant’s joined in the ex- ranks by Bradley Cooper in a cameo as Marlamin, halfling former husband of butch Holga. Cooper’s involvement was even announced as post-the-fact blue screen; a name actor showing up in a movie arbitrarily – although, Cooper was a Hollywood hermaphrodite, so there may be specific purpose in setting his scene opposite Rodriguez, who rose to attention on the strength of her bruiser moves – ought to be a clue that something may be amiss with the original performer. Obviously, a tough-guy woman with a taste for tiny men servicing her is designated for puzzled laughs in keeping with Tinseltown’s promotion of sexual incongruity.

Xenk: To drag your lady wife back to her old life is to deprive her of her new one. I’d only ask you to consider that this plane is one of many we call life.

There’ll be those – Jay Dyer, for example – suggesting any movie featuring magic is by necessity nursing some form of satanic agenda, even if only as a gateway drug. Like masons, or Jedi (okay, Sith), there are bad Thayan wizards (Sofina) and good ones (Xenk). Indeed, rather hearteningly, Xenk advises Edgin (Chris Pine) that his quest to resurrect his wife is not in her best interests (it’s a fait accompli that Edgin won’t – and that he and Holga assume the roles of Kira’s two dads after he uses the Tablet of Reawakening to save the barbarian instead – but nevertheless thematically gratifying. 

Noselessly resonant of Voldomore, lich Szass Tam is shown weaving his Beckoning Death – transforming the masses into an undead army – in flashback, and this is the same objective of Sofina in Neverwinter. We could probably analogise an unseen elite pacifying the populace through media (the games seen here) while planning a far more permanent subjugation. We also encounter the Rochnon, intellect devourers of the Underdark. While they look entirely risible (brains on legs), we’re told “They stun their targets and consume the brain, taking control of the body”. Which doesn’t sound a million miles away from the effects of a Vril parasite on its host.

This is a much more satisfying heist than the “magic” one in Now You See Me(s) because the writer-directors take the effort to figure out genuine obstacles and threats, emphasising the rule that magic can’t solve all problems. The gags are often funny – I like the tumbleweed passing by during the showdown – but sometimes overplayed (leaving the poor undead guy waiting for a fifth question during the end credits is a Taika Waititi kind of move). The special effects are mostly pretty good; it’s nice to see practical ones in the mix, and the only duff one that stood out was the bad CGI of the pursuing displacer beast (a leopard thing with tentacles). A dragon makes an appearance, so the movie isn’t selling itself under false pretences. It’s a decidedly portly one, mind. 

Mostly, though, the title is a studio getting it wrong again (if isn’t too much, it’s too little) – “Well, if we were running things, we probably would have just called it ‘Dungeons and Dragons’” – and probably helped to seal this as inessentially STV fare. But Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is fine, and a better bet than any of the superhero offerings of late.

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