Cinematic board game adaptations are hard to master. Damn near impossible, even. The entire point of a board game is a finite circumstance followed by scenarios of luck or skill. Outside of Clue – which has a narrative thrust to hang one’s hat on – feats of chance just cannot translate to the silver screen. To adapt Dungeons and Dragons – a game that solely involves the imagination, the players’ improvisational skills, and a twenty-sided die – is even more foolhardy, as the entire premise of the game is the user’s imagination.
Many have tried and failed to adapt the game into a film over the years, and John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s adaptation (subtitled Honor Among Thieves) seemed doomed to follow in their footsteps, especially after a series of lackluster trailers. As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. By honoring the game and embracing the world and ingenuity, Daley and Goldstein have crafted a unique, entertaining adventure that is equal parts thrilling, humorous, and fun.
Several years ago, bard-turned-spy-turned-thief Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and his partner-in-crime Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) were captured during an attempted heist. After escaping from prison and returning to their homeland, they discover that Edgin’s young daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) has been adopted by their former partner Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), who has made a deal with the evil Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head) to conquer the realm of Neverwinter.
Desperate to get Edgin’s daughter back and to depose the tyrannical Forge and Sofina, Edgin and Holga must assemble a team to traverse the kingdom on a quest for artifacts capable of accomplishing their coup. This ragtag team includes failed sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), shapeshifting tiefling Doric (Sophia Lillis), and even the aid of ancient elf Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page). Can the intrepid heroes find the artifacts in time to stop Sofina’s secret evil plans? Time will tell.
The reason why Dungeons and Dragons works is not because of its loyalty to the mechanics of the game, but to the emotions that playing the game elicits. Where board game adaptations so often go wrong is bringing a game’s esoteric mechanics to the big screen – the climax of the Battleship movie, for instance, featured all radar capabilities being knocked out, so the crew members have to randomly fire torpedoes at quadrants (it’s as stupid as it sounds).
While lesser filmmakers would get caught up on elevating the game’s lore – or worse, having characters constantly try to balance one-in-twenty chances – Goldstein and Daley instead lean into what makes the game unique. These games are tests of the imagination, of ingenuity and cunning in the face of constant, oftentimes-continuous failure – all while having fun with your friends. Players are challenged with obstacles, come up with solutions either genius or stupid, and then have to test their luck making their visions come to life.
Goldstein and Daley’s script mirrors that of a campaign. A task is set out for our heroes, they proceed to accomplish said task, and they continuously fail. They try a different tact, and they fail again. Then they throw out an insane idea, and by pure luck or chance, they succeed, but it doesn’t work out the way they expect. The writer/directors function as clever Dungeon Masters, throwing new obstacles, characters, and scenarios at our heroes, ever elongating the adventure, but never in a way that hinders their progress or makes their mission impossible. After all, the fun of DnD isn’t completing the quest; it’s joking with your friends as you progress in your quest. It’s literally the friends we make along the way.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Honor Among Thieves is a tactfully made film from top down. Each scene feels thoroughly exhilarating and elevates the world it inhabits. There’s a chase scene through a city done in one take while a character repeatedly shapeshifts that is equal parts exciting, humorous, and dazzling. Later, a sequence utilizes practical effect work to pull off complicated trick photography, elevating the complicated nature of a heist.
In fact, that may be Goldstein and Daly’s greatest strength: that they shy away from CGI whenever possible, utilizing practical costumes and effects. I cannot overemphasize the squeal I let out when a bird creature walks onscreen during the first act that may be one of the coolest and funniest character designs I’ve seen in a fantasy production in a long time. Putting the effort into these details is essential, for whenever the film strays with a poorly written line or an earnest utilization of the Internet-derided Dead Wife Shot, we as an audience are more willing to forgive these shortcomings based on what we’ve already seen.
As for the cast, everyone plays their part admirably, both in their dedication to the world and in the metatextual context of DnD character design. Pine is as effortlessly charming as ever – which aids whenever his character sifts through stupid lines and backstory. Meanwhile, Rodriguez is tasked with being a badass with a heart of gold – basically, the thing she’s master over her 20+ year career. Lillis is easily best-in-show with her embittered, sarcastic Doric, Page is pitch-perfect as an otherworldly, stoic hero, and watching Hugh Grant play a sinister cad is always a delight.
Finally, I want to give special notice to Justice Smith. Longtime readers of this site may know that I’ve been critical of Smith in the past, oftentimes viewing him as the worst performer in several bad movies. Despite my misgivings, he is quite good here, offering one of the film’s stronger emotional performances and fitting in nicely with the film’s comedic sensibilities. He is game for most any joke, whether he’s the straight man or the punchline. Hopefully, this is a sign of great performances to come from the young actor.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is one of the most delightful surprises of the spring. It’s imperfect, but it actually feels like a subgenre that doesn’t get made anymore. The fantasy feels fantastical, the comedy feels comedic, and the heart feels heartfelt. Above all else, it captures why this game has been so beloved by fans for over forty years. Dungeons and Dragons is a film that can be recommended as a rainy weekday outing, a Saturday date night, or an easy rental in the months to come. It works in any format, because much like the game, it is catered to fit your mood.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is now playing in theaters nationwide