Sorry? What now? A film version of the 50-year-old board game that required committed nerds to do all the imaginative work video games eliminated a decade or so later? No disrespect is intended. Making sense of the polyhedral dice was more of a career than a hobby for those brave enough to take on the “dungeon master” role. Or maybe Honour Among Thieves is a variation on the animated series that ran in the early 1980s. Or a remake of the unloved millennial film starring Jeremy Irons. At any rate, nobody asked for this. Right?
Against the odds, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, TV veterans who moved hilariously into movies with Game Night in 2018, have made something irresistible, if a little overlong, from their adaptation of whatever it is they’re adapting. Still-upright stalwarts of the role-playing game will certainly recognise familiar tropes and techniques. But the film feels more like a wider tribute to the generic traditions of fantasy movies, fiction and video games. The taverns. The knotted forests. The girl bosses in chainmail. If nothing else, Dungeons & Dragons is a better World of Warcraft film than Duncan Jones’s misbegotten Warcraft.
None of which gets in the way of comic interplay that will appeal to those who have not once dreamed of holding a gem the size of a plover’s egg. Chris Pine, channelling Errol Flynn by way of Bugs Bunny, plays Edgin Darvis, a sometime knight and bard who, following the death of his wife, is caring for his daughter with the assistance of Michelle Rodriguez as soft-hearted bruiser Holga. Somewhere along the way they have made friends with a crafty, but almost certainly harmless, gadabout named Forge Fitzwilliam. You can surely trust any Hugh Grant character with an alliterative faux-Berkeley Square name. I jest.
As it happens, the writers make no real effort to distinguish this Hugh from his malign chancer in Paddington 2, and, in the time it takes to polish a gilded helm, Edgin and Holga are spirited off to, yes, a dungeon. Forge takes control of Kira (Chloe Coleman), the protagonist’s daughter, and raises her in a city dedicated to the worship of his ubiquitous image.
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There is more where that came from. Weird artefacts raise the dead. An evil sorceress infiltrates Forge’s realm. Sophia Lillis takes on the inevitable role of a sprite with pointy ears. The film-makers manage to extract humour from the conventions without quite making fun of them. Though not the equal of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, Honour Among Thieves has that same sense of living honestly amid a forest of comically heightened cliches.
The earlier film made use of the Cliffs of Moher. The current entertainment, no doubt inspired by Game of Thrones, was largely shot in Northern Ireland. Whatever JRR Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin may once have intended, it seem this island now sets the industry standard for quasi-medieval dragon lairs. Take that, Iceland, Scotland and Romania.
What really makes the film fizz, however, is the screwball chemistry between the leads. Rodriguez is charming, riotous and a bit frightening as a tougher foil to Pine’s brave, but slippery, Smart Alec. Regé-Jean Page, the smoothest star of the era, is cunningly cast as a paladin (if you know, you know) whose integrity and fortitude harden into borderline pomposity. And Grant is now such a natural as the oily villain he can manage such a performance without rising from his daybed.
Honour Among Thieves could have tidied away its plot more economically, but the leisurely pacing does allow us to connect with the surprisingly fleshy characters. It is no mean feat to make something so funny from such unpromising material. It is more impressive still to end on a genuinely moving note. A welcome surprise.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is in cinemas from Friday, March 31st