Ever since the release of its 5th Edition ruleset in 2014, Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a newfound cultural moment over the past decade. While initial editions had long been associated with sessions full of pen and paper number-crunching, 5E introduced an approachable ruleset and playstyle that favored any skillset, encouraging superheroic characters and flexible approaches to combat, encounters, and the titular dungeon crawling and puzzle solving.
That rise in popularity for D&D’s 5th Edition is several fold: back in the cultural zeitgeist courtesy of STRANGER THINGS, riding the wave of high fantasy over the past two decades from GAME OF THRONES to THE WITCHER, as well as an influx of suddenly trendy nerd culture podcasts catered to recording D&D sessions-cum-comedy sitcoms (see: HARMONQUEST). All of these factors got me playing the 5th Edition around the time it was released, and I’ve been in active campaigns with several groups ever since.
The game has had notorious difficulty adapting to other mediums that can ape its singular appeals. In 2000, New Line Cinema released their flop adaptation of the series, produced while D&D itself was changing over its own rights holders, and a year before Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS would redefine fantasy in the modern era—it’s a stupendously awful, if exceedingly entertaining, watch, mostly for one of the most violently scenery-engulfing performances ever committed to film from one Jeremy John Irons, as well as a game attempt by Marlon Wayons.
Fast forward more than 20 years later, and Paramount (alongside D&D parent company Hasbro) has rolled their supposed D20 and released DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES, a new attempt at franchising. Does the new film live up to the groundswell of hype? Rather than assess by myself, I ventured to the fantastical lands of the AMC at Universal CityWalk with my own D&D group to decide.
Since D&D 5E was released in the exact same month as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, there’s been both implicit and explicit influence from James Gunn’s MCU debut on many campaigns over the past decade. Even this new movie stripmines plot setups from GOTG’s own pitch: a ragtag group of misfit mercenaries with competing motivations come together over a common job and embark on wondrous and emotional adventures along the way. Chris Pine is Edgin, the swashbuckling bard, Michelle Rodriguez is his platonic barbarian life partner, Pikachu’s son Justice Smith is a truly pathetic loser incel sorcerer, and Hugh Grant’s the delightful rapscallion rogue antagonist. Sophia Lillis and Regé-Jean Page round out the party as OP druid and paladin compatriots, but also spend a convenient amount of time offscreen with less developed backstories (and, in Lillis’ case, forced into a wince-inducing romantic subplot with Smith’s rizzless magician).
Crucially, as opposed to the gratingly smarmy detachment that’s defined the house style in the MCU where every character sounds like Daffy Duck and the comics worlds are treated with humiliated derision, HONOR AMONG THIEVES has a lived-in reverence for D&D’s canonical home setting: The Forgotten Realms. The locales are lushly and reverently depicted onscreen from the verdant woods of Neverwinter to the luminescent Underdark, and the combination of practical effects, puppetry, and CGI teems every corner and crevice with weird little guys. Certainly, there are plenty of easter eggs for anyone who’s studied the Dungeon Master’s Guide, with plenty of lore and classic legendary creatures to spare. Less “they fly now?!” and more an earnest, genial in-joking amongst friends at a table, complete with every punchline not always sinking the three.
The events of HONOR AMONG THIEVES play out surprisingly similarly to a standard two hour session of D&D. Our heroes find themselves in the classic conundrum where they run afoul of red wizards played by indistinguishable British actors in makeup. Protagonists immediately, painstakingly, exhaustingly detail their backstories in succession for about 20 minutes. There’s a couple time jumps in the expository backstories. They’re also imprisoned, and try to plead their case to be released, but their teary pleas get literally thrown out the window when the group decides to take an Aarakocran/birdfolk friend named Jonathan for a winged joyride.
If this sounds like a kind of inscrutable “you had to be there” summary, that’s because it is. That’s what playing D&D is like. You’re convincing your friends to do parlor room improv while drinking beer and eating pizza after work. HONOR AMONG THIEVES nails the narrative feel and rhythm of a D&D session, and seeing that kind of sense-feeling adapted onscreen was downright uncanny. The slipstream randomness that can come at the whim of a dice roll, as well as the collective storytelling effort generated by a room full of half-drunk, overfed players, some of whom might only be sussing out half of what’s going on at any given moment: these are the base thrills of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. In the wake of Gunn’s post-Whedonisms becoming de rigueur, the resulting movie overall can’t help but be saddled with something of a been-there-done-that quality no matter how many beats it hits right. I began to feel stages of Simulacres et Simulation as I recalled random, epic moments in my own campaigns, as the plot zigged and zagged as wildly as when my friends rolled feast or famine critical saves at crucial moments. Eventually, the rush of simply recalling my times playing the game overtook the enjoyment of watching the movie itself.
There are several fun setpieces that use portal hopping and spellcasting to enhance the heists, dungeon crawls, mazes and monsters in imaginative ways, including a very fun Raimi-esque graveyard scene where the party interrogates corpses. Most of the magic has canonical fidelity to the game’s rulebook, and you can tell the principal cast and crew ironed out their characters and backstories perhaps a bit too exhaustively in-session during pre-production. And, there’s one thing I will give the 2000 D&D movie credit for: by the climax of the movie, Jeremy Irons had unleashed a metric fuckton of dragons. I could count the number of dragons in this movie on one hand; even as memorable as Themberchaud is in his one scene, there is only a mere glimpse of the acidic and cruel black dragon.
My group’s consensus? DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES is a worthwhile watch for fans and nonfans alike, especially if goofy high fantasy adventure is your bag—but, it could have stood to have been either a little better or even a little worse than it is. Still, no film will ever truly replicate the experience of playing the game itself, and this movie admirably attempts the feat in a popcorn genre package. It’s a cromulent heist movie with a handful of memorable characters and a surprisingly strong emotional core, but the convoluted plot and constant volley of tropes and easter eggs can’t really turn a series of fun set-pieces and gags into an instant classic. On a D20 roll, it receives a 13. That happened.