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Getting Medieval: “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” reviewed

I never played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. Wait — scratch that. When I was around 11 years old, I was invited to a friend’s house to play D&D with him and his buddies, but I was so confused I barely made it through an hour. That’s right: I was too stupid to play Dungeons & Dragons.

Some of those old feelings of inadequacy returned as I watched Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the second attempt in the past 23 years to turn the popular fantasy role-playing game into a feature-film franchise. But this time, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein seem willing to meet those of us who couldn’t care less about D&D (or who were traumatized by it as kids) halfway. They somehow manage to play to the base — their film is filled with medieval derring-do, unpronounceable fantasy-speak, and what I can only assume is a cornucopia of nerdtastic Easter eggs — while acknowledging the inherent ridiculousness and impenetrability of the concept.

Casting Chris Pine was certainly inspired, as he’s one of those leading men forever willing to poke fun at his very leading manness. (This is, after all, the actor who somehow ably replaced William Shatner in his most iconic role.) Maybe it’s just his destiny with that designed-in-a-lab face and politician-perfect hair of his. Here, he plays Edgin Darvis, a former member of the Harpers faction who used to defend all that was good and right but turned to thievery after losing his beloved wife. He and his barbarian partner, Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), have just escaped from prison, where they were serving a sentence for “grand larceny and skulduggery,” on the back of an enormous bird-human-hybrid member of their parole board. Other members of their team, which they assemble over the course of the movie, include a hapless, self-flagellating sorcerer, Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), and a very capable, confident tiefling druid (I am pretending to know what that means) named Doric (Sophia Lillis), who has had enough of humans and has joined the Emerald Enclave resistance movement.

Ordinarily, my eyes start to glaze over when modern movies become all about the retrieving of magical objects, but that’s largely because they seem to take these quests so damn seriously. (Not everyone can be Peter Jackson. Sometimes, not even Peter Jackson can be Peter Jackson.) Honor Among Thieves, by contrast, playfully piles on the items, which makes sense because, as I recall, Dungeons & Dragons the game is all about finding magical objects. So to retrieve the Tablet of Reawakening, our heroes have to defeat the Arcane Seal of Mordenkainen, and to do that they must obtain something called the Helmet of Disjunction, and along the way there are Hither Thither Staffs, invisibility pendants, anti-magic bracelets, and assorted spells and challenges. You can choose to reason out exactly how this stuff works, or you can just enjoy the pleasant delirium of fantasy-jargon overload and not worry too much that you have no idea who Szass Tam is.

With Honor Among Thieves, they’re working with a much bigger budget — an actual property with an existing fan base and a bevy of corporate expectations — and they know they will presumably get beheaded in public if it fails. Bravely and wisely, they still err on the side of humor at just about every turn. The film’s set pieces are built around comedy, with bits of (cleverly choreographed and directed) action and suspense to add some urgency, not the other way around. There’s more Monty Python in the DNA of Honor Among Thieves than one might expect, probably because there’s more overlap between Monty Python and Dungeons & Dragons fandoms than one might expect.

At the same time, Daley and Goldstein make sure never to undercut the actual story or the characters. If anything, the humor helps to up the suspense. When our heroes realize that to discover the location of the Helmet of Disjunction they have to use a spell that lets them ask five questions to a corpse, they dig up a grave and raise the dead soldier within. But they screw up the questioning, so they then have to dig up another corpse. That one turns out to have died before he could see what happened to the helmet, so they have to dig up another guy. That dude turns out to be the brother of the corpse they really wanted, and on and on it goes. By the end of it, we really want them to retrieve that damn helmet and to be able to use it. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is the work of filmmakers who understand that the best way to take stuff like this seriously is not to take it seriously at all, and to have fun with it. Other movies could learn from the example.