Even with a surprise resurgence in the popularity of the immersive, exhausting role-playing fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons (2017 saw more players of the game than any other year in its entire existence), betting a reported $150m on a new franchise-starting film is a risky, borderline reckless, move, like betting on a regular goblin against a hobgoblin in a magic sorcery battle (note: I have never played Dungeons & Dragons before). As acceptably engaging as Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves might be, it’s hard to fully understand the thinking behind such a wild gambit, especially given that a splashy Paramount+ TV series is also in the works, the success of one film immediately dictating the existence of an entire extended universe.
While other more mainstreamed franchises have touched upon loosely similar fantasy territory, from Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings, there’s more of a niche, loaded quality to D&D that could prevent a similar trajectory, an association with hardcore geek culture that might be hard to shake for the average multiplex-frequenter.
It’s not as if those behind the film aren’t also acutely aware of this as well, hiring the duo behind Game Night, Horrible Bosses and Spider-man: Homecoming to bring some pop and levity, aiming to give the film a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque irreverence, something the cool kids could enjoy just as much. It’s a passable attempt at such and one which is made all the more passable by context, comparing it with recent Marvel and DC films making it seem that much better but is that enough to warrant such lofty universe-starting investment?
As well as nabbing writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who helped reinvent Spider-man, they’ve also cast in the lead Chris Pine, who helped steer the Star Trek reboot to widespread prosperity. He transplants some of that same cocky charm to his role here, playing a thief who turned his back on a more respectable life once his wife was murdered.
Together with partner-in-crime Holga (Michelle Rodriguez doing exactly what you expect Michelle Rodriguez to do in a franchise movie such as this, which isn’t a bad thing), they are forced into an elaborate plan to recover his child after a heist goes wrong. It’s then superhero assemblage formula with them travelling to pick up Justice Smith’s wannabe sorcerer and Sophia Lillis’s druid while getting extra assistance from Regé-Jean Page’s paladin. Together they must defeat Hugh Grant’s power-hungry con artist and Daisy Head’s red wizard.
If the film hewing so closely to Marvel beats is frustrating it’s also entirely inevitable, the superhero factory having an indelible impact on how the industry treats the majority of colon-heavy tentpole properties. But the upside is that by aping a genre that has been going through a significant downturn in quality, doing the bare minimum is then somehow doing quite a lot.
A coherent plot, well-choreographed action, real locations, some practical effects and a self-contained story not set in a multiverse make it easy-to-digest, the level for entry not requiring quite as much knowledge of post-credit scenes and a myriad of Disney+ TV shows. The script does a solid job of making it an accessible world to those not already steeped in it although Goldstein and Daley, writing alongside Michael Gilio, are less effective with the film’s many attempts at comedy.
It’s a shame as the cast are game and Pine and Rodriguez have a fizzy platonic chemistry but it’s just never as funny as it should be despite ample set-ups, like a striker missing multiple hard-to-miss opportunities to score, leading to similar head-in-hands moments. There are momentary flashes of something sharper, as if a storied sitcom writer was allowed a day’s worth of touch-ups, such as a charmingly silly sequence involving reanimated corpses, but the film needed more genuine laughs to work as the high-spirited romp it so clearly wants to be. Brazenly stealing Dave Bautista’s inability to understand humour from Guardians and lazily giving it to Page, an action scene involving a fat dragon and a bizarre cameo from an A-lister that’s just one dumb overextended sight gag distract from what’s otherwise mostly well-paced and energetic.
It’s the missing bit of magic in a serviceable franchise-starter that benefits from the very low bar we currently have. Whether that enjoyed-on-a-plane level of disposability is quite enough to warrant the beginning of a new multi-platform universe is to be confirmed very soon (the film is tracking to open low this weekend) but if future instalments are to happen, we could do with a little more funny to go with that fun.