Wednesday 5 April 2023

Another roll of the dice: "Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves"

Some good news: it feels like just about the smallest challenge Hollywood could set itself at this point in its history, but the new
Dungeons & Dragons reboot, Honour Among Thieves, sails above the notoriously dire 2000 effort featuring an unhappy Thora Birch and an especially hammy Jeremy Irons. The new film requires similar ingredients, perhaps unsurprisingly - production design, bafflingly arbitrary special powers, orcs - and even sitting in the same room as it feels like dooming yourself to seven years of sexlessness. Yet writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley bring to the table sporadic flashes of the ludic wit that made their earlier Game Night such a blast, and they've at least tried to figure out ways to make randomised medieval roleplay palatable to a non-LARPing audience. This tale's an extended matter of childcare - or, as Vin Diesel puts it in those Fast & Furious movies from which Goldstein and Daley cop a few narrative licks (and a key cast member), faaaam-leee. Roguish thief Edgin (Chris Pine, probably now Hollywood's best Chris - another low bar - and definitely improving with age) escapes prison with Amazonian sidekick Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), and sets out to retrieve the now-teenage daughter he'd previously left in the custody of a criminal associate named Forge. The latter has broken truly bad in the meantime, setting himself up as both a Lord and a vengeful god; he's played by Hugh Grant - inheriting the Irons mantle of post-Rickman Anglo supervillain - who's had the mischievous wheeze of playing the part as Boris Johnson. Forge goes AWOL for the entire second act, preparing to take the credit for some kingdom-uniting sporting event at which he plans to do away with large numbers of his own people, effectively wedding the Johnson of 2012 with the Johnson of 2020.

That's one sliver of human interest to cling to as the movie winds its way through its two-and-a-quarter hours, but - while doubtless a sprint by real-world D&D standards - two-and-a-quarter hours is still a long time to dwell on a plot that depends on the whereabouts of The Thingummy of Doodah, that can fall back on fifty years of in-game fixes to get its characters out of a tight spot, invites us to invest in the exploits of an owl-bear hybrid, and still winds up with a city being shot to shit for the final 35 minutes. (It's a walled city this time, but still.) Somewhere en route, I got the sense of further bars being mechanically lowered. After the busted grand designs of the MCU, this looks very much like the American event movie reconnecting with that strain of tatty, post-Legend swords-and-sorcery screenfiller that was a staple of half-terms in the 1980s. Honour Among Thieves has had rather more money thrown at it, albeit not enough to pep up an underpowered supporting cast: the kids Pine and Rodriguez pick up (Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis) aren't as sparky as the middle hour needs them to be, while Regé-Jean Page appears terribly smug for a sometime Next Big Thing who's already being cast as Third Wizard from the Left. I will also grant you that it's been shot with altogether more dynamism and care than one might expect from a Dungeons & Dragons movie from the guys behind the Horrible Bosses films. What's still vaguely depressing about it - and I'll confess to experiencing the same sinking feeling I felt watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie - is that you can already map out exactly where this series is heading. They'll make a bunch of these now, helmed by creatives for whom the gig is no more than a moderately fat paycheque, and interest will wane accordingly. We've been there before; we're going there again. What's up on screen this week is harmless enough fluff that will kill time before the fully grown blockbusters come round again, but which can only truly be considered good when set against the meagre standards of the earlier D&D disaster. Still, it struck me about an hour in: there may be no more prominent recent example of the kind of thing we critics are meant just to let folks enjoy. So, y'know: have at it, as you will, whatever.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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