2023 | PG-13 | starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Sophie Lillis, Justice Smith, Hugh Grant, Daisy Head | directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein | 2h 14m |
After a year in confinement, a fast-talking thief named Edgin (Chris Pine) and his muscle backup Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) escape prison and set off to reclaim his daughter and avenge the treachery that put them behind bars, in the process forming a party with novice magician Simon (Justice Smith), shapeshifter Doric (Sophie Lillis, It) and dashing midevil hero Xenk (Rege-Jean Page, Bridgerton) and returning the kingdom back to the people.
The last time John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein got together they made Game Night, a terrific movie that balanced wit, slapstick, character and action all within the strict confines of a studio comedy. They do exactly that once again for the midevil fantasy film with Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves – a clunky, overly serious title that doesn’t at all hint at what a spry, witty and endlessly fun movie that lives here. I know very little about the actual Dungeons and Dragons game (so that that for what it’s worth), but it does seem perfectly apropos for the actor who once played Sam Weir in Freaks and Geeks to make the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons movie. It’s just D&D with a heavy dose of irreverence.
Thieves isn’t going to break the mold and reinvent the fantasy genre. That’s not it’s goal, but working within that framework, it delivers both a faithful adaptation that gives us a living, breathing world and also skirts and flips the tropes at every opportunity. It’s not quite Monty Python or Mel Brooks, but it feels close at times, particularly in a damn near brilliant scene where Simon summons a spell to ask the dead 5 questions. The way the script mines every possible joke out of this bit and doubles down on it over and over makes for one of the best comic set pieces I’ve seen in quite a while. That comedy is balanced equally with the inventiveness of the action, none better than a showstopping “one-take” sequence where Doric escapes the castle shapeshifting into every animal she can think of to stay one step ahead of a stampeding army of guards.
Balance is the name of the game here. It’s rare for a studio adventure film today to juggle wit with slapstick with action, fantasy and the character beats of a story where everyone has their moment and every arc is wrapped up nicely and hit all of these notes just right. The film is spry and nimble, and despite it’s breathlessly paced opening set-up doesn’t run out of ideas at any point. Daley and Goldstein have a lot of fun with the magic of the world, inventing clever uses out of portals or gravity defying magic or finding a new angle on a dragon attack sequence.
The comic and grounding center here is Chris Pine, who pulls off what Disney has been attempting to recreate for a decade now: Jack Sparrow. Pine’s thief is a motor-mouth with the gift of planning and improvising out of situations while not having much magic to offer himself. Pine and Rodriguez have solid chemistry together, make for a perfectly true to form buddy-cop duo that fuels the film. You know, those movies where Jackie Chan handled the fighting while an American did all the talking. Elsewhere we have Hugh Grant in the “sniveling villain role” backed up by a sorceress (Daisy Head) who holds the true villainy.
In a note of subversion, Thieves actually does break the Hollywood mold of how it treats female villains. In the last few years, as movies have been touting female heroes, it has been more cautious with female villains. Movies like Wonder Woman, Hardcore Henry, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Captain Marvel and Black Widow presented us with female villains only to sweep them away so the hero can fight a man with studio audiences still presumably squeamish about watching a woman, even a genocidal one, being killed on-screen. Without going into too much, Thieves flips this trope on it’s head.
This is how you make a genre film. Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t present us a high concept premise to explore until it dries up. It tells a story and that story unfolds in layers that illuminate the characters and has a blast with the situations. Daley and Goldstein assemble the pieces with care and guide it effortlessly from one set piece to the next. This, like the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, are part of that increasingly rare studio breed that feels like it was made by people who cared about the final product. That fine tuned it and polished it to be the best it can be. The film was mismarketed and criminally underseen upon initial release so hopefully it finds a second life and we get another adventure with this charming band of misfits. A complete joy of a film.