Chris Pine & Company Score A Critical Hit [SXSW]

Mar 12, 2023

With Hollywood now turning to franchises like “The Last of Us” and “Borderlands” in the search for new audiences, it might be safe to say that video games are no longer the untapped frontier of adaptations. And that might mean it is the tabletop industry’s time to shine. “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is the latest attempt to bring the tabletop roleplaying game to the big screen, but while other film and television adaptations seemed uncertain of what they had, ‘Honor Among Thieves’ is safely in the hands of creators who seem to genuinely love their world of magic and mayhem.
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From the film’s first moments, things are not going great for Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez). Locked in the “Dungeons & Dragons” equivalent of a supermax prison, the two thieves hatch a plan to escape home and reunite with Edgin’s estranged daughter. But both thieves soon learn that the balance of power has shifted in their absence. The new lord of the land is Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), a former accomplice who has reformed his ways – and taken Edgin’s daughter as his ward in the process. To win back her trust, Edgin and Holga must break into the city of Neverwinter during the busiest day of the year.
The only question is how. ‘Honor Among Thieves’may offers the trappings of a fantasy epic, but the main story is rooted in heist films. Edgin must start by repairing his relationship with sad sack wizard Simon Aumar (Justice Smith, very funny here) and recruiting the borderline-hostile tiefling Rodic (Sophia Lillis). But even that is not enough: Edgin must also seek the help of fabled paladin Xenk Yendar (a fabulous Regé-Jean Page) and journey with him into the bowels of the underworld in search of an ancient weapon. Soon the fledgling party finds itself in the crosshairs of a dangerous sect that wishes to bring death and destruction down upon Neverwinter.
Versions of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” have been in development for years, and writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley were ultimately selected to push the film across the finish line. Those who have seen the directors’ most recent movie – “Game Night,” a social media darling and an endless fount of Jesse Plemons quotes – know that the two men have a gift for situational comedy. But everyone worried that ‘Honor Among Thieves’would get lost somewhere between the license, and the gags can breathe easier: the whole thing holds together remarkably well.
Those who have sat down to play “Dungeons & Dragons” know that tabletop games invite silliness and seriousness in equal measure. You and your friends gather around a table and try to make each other laugh while also growing a genuine emotional connection to your avatar. That experience forms the basis for ‘Honor Among Thieves.’ At its best, this film is a celebration of comedy and character, never letting the threat of cataclysm overshadow the experience of watching a group of likable people bounce ideas, quips, and character moments off each other.
Granted, this approach is easy when you have actors like Pine leading the charge. What might seem thin on paper dramatically benefits from the main cast’s cinematic intertextuality – dare I say, star power. Do we need a wealth of backstory to understand the machinations of a thief like Forge? Or is a lifetime of Hugh Grant movies enough to build around? How exactly did Holga learn to become such an expert fighter? Doesn’t matter, Michelle Rodriguez. What could feel like typecasting instead becomes a form of archetypal character shorthand.  
But in a movie with charisma to spare, the real standout is Regé-Jean Page. Xenk Yendar is a fascinating Rosetta Stone concept for Daley and Goldstein’s approach to the material. Yes, his humorless brand of justice is the source of many fantastic jokes – there’s a gag about Xenk’s walk in the movie that stands heads and shoulders above the rest – but Xenk also subtly reinforces the localized stakes of the film. Science fiction and fantasy franchises can often become mired in the concept of the chosen one. Presenting audiences with a powerful hero as only a secondary character simultaneously expands the world and focuses the stakes.
The rest of the movie slots neatly around the comedy and characters. ‘Honor Among Thieves is an unapologetically cartoonish movie and, honestly, all the better for it. From bright displays of magic to a host of goofy creatures, the cast and crew set out to create a fantasy world that is no interest in competing with the increasingly bland pseudo-science of the Marvel universe. In fact, it is impossible to watch the film and not draw parallels to other blockbuster trends. Watching set pieces operate primarily on vibes – without sacrificing much in the way of VFX or fight choreography – is part of the movie’s unique charm.
The various ideas on display can sometimes cause ‘Honor Among Thieves’to feel a little uneven. Some scenes – such as a late-movie caravan heist – are genuinely inspired, but the narrative occasionally gives way to the expected mile markers of personal growth and found family. But no matter how silly or severe the movie may get, Daley and Goldstein always approach the material on its merits. This is a fantasy adventure from people who seem to enjoy fantasy adventures without equivocation.
When it comes to evaluating the greatness of movies, Gene Siskel was fond of asking if a film was as effective as a documentary of those same actors having lunch. But thanks to “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” we now have a new question: did we enjoy a film as much as we would enjoy a recording of a ‘Dungeons & Dragons’home game with the same cast? In the case of this movie, the answer feels very much like a yes. And if that’s good enough for Siskel, it’s good enough for me. [B+]
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