Producers: Jeremy Latcham, Brian Goldner and Nick Meyer Directors: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley Screenplay: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley and Michael Gilio Cast: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Chloe Coleman and Daisy Head Distributor: Paramount
Not long ago Martin Scorsese compared some movies to amusement parks, saying they had nothing to do with cinema. He was talking about pictures in the Marvel Universe, but this popcorn flick inspired by the venerable role-playing board game is perhaps a more obvious example of what he was talking about. “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is even more of a theme park movie than “Jungle Ride,” which was actually based on one: it’s a random series of CGI action episodes loosely connected to a quest nobody really cares about, the cinematic equivalent of a mile-high roller-coaster ride with no other objective but to provide multiple jolts before screeching to an explosive halt.
Rather than attempting to convey the feel of playing the game, the script by directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, along with collaborator Michael Gilio, essentially follows the template of 2000’s “Dungeons & Dragons,” presenting an adventure as it might be played out on the board in the form of a big-budget CGI extravaganza. The earlier movie was an embarrassing bust, chintzy and dumb; this one is certainly an improvement, in terms of both the writing and the execution. But in the intervening two decades-plus, there have been a plethora of pictures like it, some good but most bad. This reboot of the franchise comes across as a winking compendium of episodes cribbed from earlier movies, some of them re-imagined in inventive ways, and all presented in spectacular visuals, but taken together they’re like a parade of slightly musty greatest hits. By the close they make you feel stuffed but unsatisfied.
The first two characters we’re introduced to are Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez). He’s a swaggering, smart-alecky former Harper agent, and she’s a Barbarian-in-Exile. They’ve been imprisoned after being caught in a failed heist in which Edgin was attempting to steal the Tablet of Reawakening, with which he hoped to resurrect his dead wife. She’d been killed by a bunch of villains avenging one of his previous thefts.
During his imprisonment Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) has been taken care of by another member of his roguish band, Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant). Edgin and Holga escape prison, but during Edgin’s absence unscrupulous Forge has become the powerful Lord of the realm of Neverwinter, and has encouraged Kira to suspect Edgin’s motives and think of him as her true father. Edgin and Holga barely manage to escape Forge and his mysterious advisor Sofina (Daisy Head).
Now Edgin is more determined than ever to find the Table of Reawakening, which he sees as the key to restoring his family, but to do so will need to enlist a sorcerer and a druid in the quest. So he recruits Simon Aurnar (Justice Smith), an inept wizard with a debilitating lack of confidence, and Doric (Sophia Lillis), a human-hating druid with an animus against Forge. For a time the quartet will accept help from the Paladin Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page), who leads them into an underground cavern to retrieve the Helmet of Disjunction, a time-stopping headpiece which they will need to complete their task. Acquiring it after a series of battles they return to Forge’s realm, where they have to confront Sofia, who turns out to be a Red Wizard from the menacing realm of Thay, and spoil Forge’s schemen to get away with a fortune.
Got all that? Much of it will undoubtedly be common knowledge to devotees of the game, who will enjoy it for nostalgic reasons, and if you’re not among them it doesn’t really matter, because the basic comic-book-style narrative isn’t all that difficult for the uninitiated to follow, even with the addition of such elements as a rampaging dragon, dead soldiers who will revive if killed again, a magical transporter stick, and corpses that can be brought back to life to answer five questions (no more, no fewer) before collapsing back into their coffins. As usual in such fare, the finale is bloated, beginning with our heroes having to face opponents and obstacles in an arena and sabotaging Forge’s plans before facing off against Sofina. Unsurprisingly, all turns out well, even if Edgin must confront a difficult choice about whom to resurrect with that magic Table.
There’s some fun to be had from “Honor Among Thieves,” especially when Xenk, a fellow oblivious to humor, irony and sarcasm nicely played by Page, is around. The scene with the answer-giving corpses is also amusing, in a Monty Python-esque way. And though Grant isn’t as engagingly villainous as in some of his other recent outings, he has a way of enlivening even moribund dialogue.
But for the most part despite all its energy and visual extravagance—courtesy of not just Goldstein and Daley but their crew (production designer Raymond Chan, costumer Amanda Monk, cinematographer Barry Peterson, and the special-effects army), with Lorne Balfe’s score adding the usual propulsive vibe—the movie never much gets beyond commonplace adventure. For one thing, it piles on the action unremittingly, rarely letting up (the old Ray Harryhausen movies knew the value of breathing space), and—as edited by Dan Lebental—the big finale is overlong, cluttered and exhausting.
Nor, apart from Page and Grant, do the cast make their characters memorable. Pine is just the smug scalawag we’re seen too often before (from Harrison Ford’s Solo to Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord), and Rodriguez the kick-ass heroine. Smith and Lillis are fine but unexceptional, and Head one of those impassive but impressively garbed figures who can shoot power-beams from her hands. Where have we seen that before?
There’s no doubt that “Dungeons & Dragons” offers a wealth of action, and enough juvenile humor, to satisfy viewers hungry for brainless CGI extravagance. It might even be successful enough to start a series. But it really does nothing new, and the old stuff it offers feels recycled.