A critic’s goal is always to remain as objective as possible, but sometimes that’s more difficult than others. Everyone has favorite performers or filmmakers they want to see succeed. Everyone has favorite novels or plays they want to see adapted well. And in today’s world of IP cannibalization, many people have fierce loyalty to a comic book or video game.
That loyalty can also, perversely, produce resentment when an adaptation isn’t as faithful to the source material as some viewers may have envisioned. Just like politicians, film studios walk a tightrope when they try to appeal to the broadest possible audience without alienating the base. When they do so successfully, the result can be something as massively profitable as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When they don’t, it can be something as eminently forgettable as Universal’s “Dark Universe” fiasco.
The latest to attempt this balancing act is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which is, of course, based on the tabletop role-playing game that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. As a longtime (like four decades long) player of the game, I have a vested interest in seeing it done justice on the big screen, especially after the blatant failure of the 2001 film Dungeons & Dragons.
Not to bury the lede or anything, but you might have an additional reason to doubt my neutrality here. My father, Kim Mohan, worked for TSR, the company that originated the game, and its successor, Wizards of the Coast, from 1979 until, essentially, his death in December 2022. He was, in fact, hired by the producers of the new film to serve as a sort of fact-checker, to track how well the screenplay incorporated the game rules and world-building details that have accrued over the decades.
Seeing Honor Among Thieves, then, was the definition of bittersweet for me. There was the gratification of seeing his work (and that of so many others no longer with us) treated with some measure of respect after being relegated to the basements and underpopulated cafeteria tables of pop culture for so long. And, of course, there was the piercing sadness that he did not live to see himself credited as “Lore Master,” a fitting tribute to one of the last remaining repositories of the institutional knowledge surrounding a global cultural phenomenon.
Designed as a lighthearted medieval fantasy romp, the movie stars Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez as a pair of adventuring cohorts, he a lute-playing scoundrel of a bard and she a fierce but loyal axe-wielding barbarian. He’s on a quest to reunite with his daughter, who was left in the custody of a former ally following a botched heist and subsequent incarceration, and obtain the magic that might return his dead wife to life. Teaming with a sorcerer who has self-esteem issues (Justice Smith), a shape-changing druid (Sophia Lillis), and a humorless paladin (Regé-Jean Page), our hero must ultimately face off against that devious former ally (Hugh Grant) and the creepy necromancer (Daisy Head) who’s pulling his strings.
The plot may be fairly generic, with the charming cast, winking tone, and action set pieces intended to be the main draw. Just as with the Marvel movies, the goal is a tone that’s respectful but not reverential and amusing but not self-parodic. There are owlbears and gelatinous cubes, Wizards of Thay and Forgotten Realms. And there are also goofy scenes involving conversations with corpses and an obese dragon. So, does it work?
My response to Honor Among Thieves is threefold.
First, knowing my dad, and the attention to detail that made him an invaluable editorial talent, I’m gutted that I won’t be able to sit down with him and nitpick the hell out of the movie. He shared a few of his gripes with me over the couple of years, and offered to give me a peek at the screenplay (NDA be damned), but never quite got around to it. If you read any comments from gamers along the lines of “that spell doesn’t really work that way,” or “that’s not what an intellect devourer looks like,” know that he probably had the same reaction.
Second, as a 10th-level nerd and veteran RPGer, I’m prone to forgive some of the minor fudging that’s done in the service of an entertaining and engaging story. My only real quibble from a player’s perspective is that too many of the combat scenes play out in a fashion where one character tells the others to stay back and then takes out a raft of bad guys. In real D&D, the most satisfying combats are those in which every character has a chance to contribute to victory. (I’m glad I got that out of my system.)
Third (puts on critic hat), Honor Among Thieves proves to be a fun if somewhat forgettable romp. It’s about 10% too silly for my taste, and the characters have about as much depth and backstory as you could scribble on the bottom half of a character sheet. But these flaws don’t prevent it from being a satisfying and accurate replication of how fun it can be to sit around a table with friends and make up stories about ragtag bands of misfits banding together to take down the forces of evil, occasionally rolling various dice to determine whether they succeed.
Writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (the latter of whom starred in the D&D-friendly and altogether brilliant TV series Freaks & Geeks) have made a movie that captures that spirit of improvisation and freedom, a welcome contrast to the image of the game as the purview of humorless rules lawyers. If it does well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, that would be great. If it encourages audience members to dust off those old d20s and get the party back together, even better.
Smoking Causes Coughing: The latest from French surrealist Quentin Dupieux is bizarre even by the standards of a director whose previous output includes a film about a serial killer who’s a tire (Rubber) and another about two losers trying to train a giant housefly (Mandibles). Ostensibly, it’s about a quintet of uniformed superheroes who dress like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and call themselves Tobacco Force. (They each can shoot rays of one harmful chemical—benzene, nicotine, etc.—and give their enemies cancer.) Sent on a team-building camping retreat by their government liaison, who’s a rat, they end up telling each other scary campfire stories until the impending end of the world interrupts their bizarre reveries. It may not produce many belly laughs, but it’s impressively weird. (Opens Friday, March 31, at Living Room Theaters and the Hollywood Theatre.)
Rodeo: Julia (Julie Ledru) finds solace from her dismal home life by speeding down the road on a motorcycle. She gets even more solace from stealing bikes from unsuspecting sellers who are amused that a young woman such as her would be interested in such things. Julia falls in with a group of urban trick-riders who strut their stuff by pulling wheelies that challenge the laws of physics and laying rubber until the cops come. (Director Lola Quivoron was inspired by the same Baltimore motocross scene that was captured in the excellent 2014 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys.) Eager to prove herself among this hyper-masculine crowd, she gets drawn into a relationship with the wife and child of the group’s incarcerated leader, which leads to increasingly risky behavior. The film is best when it grittily captures the outlaw lives of its characters (and not when it succumbs to mystical pretensions), and when it homes in on the magnetic performance of Ledru, who’s making her film debut. (Opens Friday, March 31, at the Living Room Theaters.)
Big Shark: Camp, it’s usually said, can’t be intentional. It’ll be interesting, then, to see how this effort from famously inept filmmaker Tommy Wiseau (The Room) plays. Is it a sincere effort to make a movie about (judging from the trailer) a pair of New Orleans boxers who are beset by the titular great white? Or is it, as many suspect The Room of being, a brain-scrambling piece of performance art? And will James Franco direct a movie about its making a few years from now? Wiseau will be visiting Cinema 21, where The Room has had regular Saturday-night cult screening, in person this weekend for the world theatrical premiere of his long-awaited (?) follow-up. (Screens Saturday & Sunday, April 1 & 2, at Cinema 21.)
Infinite Sea: On a depopulated and dying Earth, Pedro (Nuno Nolasco) uses rudimentary computers to try to hack into the system and reverse his disqualification for travel to an off-world colony. He meets the enigmatic Eva (Maria Leite), who helps him to overcome the fear of water that has prevented him from going to Proxima Centauri. This elliptical, sparse sci-fi drama is the feature directing debut for Portuguese filmmaker Carlos Amaral, whose previous work has mostly been as a special effects artist. It shows—the movie is crisply shot, with convincing effect. The deliberate pacing and Solaris-style philosophizing, though, make it feel like a half-hour short stretched out to 80 minutes. Fans of heady genre fare should still give it a look. (Available to rent via Amazon and Vudu.)