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Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I'll be honest, it's hard to have hope for a movie based on Dungeons & Dragons. There is plenty of media based on the worlds spawned by the tabletop game system, books and games and so forth. And the game system does have a number of rich worlds that have been crafted (with a considerable amount of care) over the decades. There is no lack of viable material to use to build a story and setting for a film (or other production). It's just that, if all you do is adapt the world of an RPG to the screen, you've just made yet another generic fantasy film.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

When you think of Dungeons & Dragons, your first thought isn't, "wow, I'd love to see a movie based on the world set within these rules." You're probably going, "I'm gonna play a Orc named Barry who has dreams of defying the conventions of his race to go off and be a bard." Or, you say, "I'm gonna play a fighter with two longs swords who kills everything in his path." Your thought isn't on how others would interpret the world, you're in it so you can play in that world. A film or show based on the tabletop RPG misses one of the key parts of the D&D experience: the player dynamic. With out that it's just a story told to the viewers, and that hardly feels like D&D.

New adventure film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves does seem to at least understand to a certain extent. When you're playing with your friends part of the enjoyment of the game is cracking wise and having fun as you wander around the world. Any film that taps into the D&D brand has to at least be able to present that dynamic in some capacity, and Honor Among Thieves largely does. It presents a band of mid-level heroes out on a quest not to save the world but to reclaim lost family (and maybe make a bit of loot on the side). It's a loose and fun adventure that does managed to present the fun of D&D without being beholden to the setting of a D&D session. It's a film that largely works because, first and foremost, it brings the fun.

The movie focuses on a duo of, well, less than honorable adventurers: Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a bard and former Harper, and Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), a barbarian and exiled member of the Uthgardt Elk Tribe. Year prior, Edgin's wife was killed by Red Wizards, leaving Edgin to raise their baby girl alone. Except, on one drunken night at a tavern, Holga showed up and helped out with the kid. A friendship between Edgin and Holga was struck and Holga effectively became the baby's surrogate mother. Edgin, feeling betrayed by the Harper Guild (because of the death of his wife), leaves the Harpers and goes off with Holga to become a far less reputable thief. He did have rules -- no hurting anyone, no stealing from the needy -- but he was a thief all the same.

Together with a band of fellows they gathered over time, including minor wizard Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), they traveled around, gaining much in the way of valuable spoils. One job, their last big job, goes horribly off the rails, though. Forge points the group to a vast treasury which has a powerful totem that could bring Edgin's wife back from the dead. The group collects the treasures in the vault, but the totem sets off alarms and, in the process, Edgin and Holga are captured. They then spend the next two years in prison, plotting a way to escape, all so they can get back to Edgin's daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), and reunite their family. Except, in the two years, Forge has become the lord of Neverwinter and, as it's quickly revealed, was working against the group the whole time (he is a rogue, after all). Now Edgin and Holga need to get the band back together and find a way to break into Neverwinter to reclaim the totem, get back Kira, and be a family once more.

Although the story for Honor Among Thieves feels complex, it really isn't at all difficult to follow along during the film. We pick up in medias res with Edgin and Holga in prison near the end of their stint, and the important bits of back story are conveyed to us at various points during the film when relevant. It allows us to enjoy the adventure as it happens without getting too bogged down, time and again, in over explanations of the story.

Honestly, this feels like a storytelling device lifted right from the play sessions of the game. Any time you wander into a town and a new quest comes up, the Dungeon Master invariably has to pause and explain the history of the town, or the town's leader, or what's going on with some foe. Regular stops for a bit of back story are the norm, and this film nicely keeps that going. Maybe the pacing wouldn't work for the general public but for anyone that's played a D&D game at any point in their lives, this will feel absolutely natural.

The chemistry and friendship between Edgin and Holga also feels perfectly natural. These two have an easy friendship, almost a sibling-like bond, that is nicely conveyed by Pine and Rodriguez. The film creates the kind of easy bond between them that friends will have when they play a game around a table. And, as a bonus, this is a perfectly platonic friendship, a rarity for a male/female pairing in Hollywood productions. They each have their own people, their own desires, and, for each other, they act as proper wingmen. I liked that a lot.

Between these two, and the characters that get picked up along the way, the film is able to build the breezy vibe to create a fun and enjoyable little adventure comedy. It's a funny film, one that never takes itself too seriously because, really, this is D&D and players can only take an adventure so seriously. There's always jokes and asides and a fair bit of ribbing. This film keeps all that in while letting the loose and fun adventure play out. That's how the film really finds a way to tap into the vibe of D&D without literally having characters sheets on screen all the time.

Frankly, this is the kind of adventure I think anyone could sit down and enjoy. Reviews for the film have been good, both among critics and audiences, so it's clearly a film capable of striking a chord. Sadly, despite how fan and enjoyable it is, the film is on track right now to become a bit of a financial flop. The movie cost $150 Mil to make and would need to rake up upwards of $400 Mil at the Box Office. With an $80 Mil international haul for its opening weekend, that puts it on pace to make closer to $250 Mil or so (given standard trends). Not enough to call it a true success, and a potential sequel is unlikely.

There are reasons, I think, that we can pin on this. For starters, it is a Dungeons & Dragons film. Despite these more enlightened times where nerdy fantasy adventure can do well at the Box Office (with the two decades of superhero adventures being a clear example) there is still a thought that "D&D is for nerds!" It could be that no matter how good a film may be, having the D&D brand slapped on it keeps some audience members away. Superheroes, with their crime fighting and glitzy costumes, are somehow just inherently cool. Fantasy guys wandering around, battling displacer beasts and beholders don't have the same baked in cool factor. Not yet.

And, let's remember that the theaters still haven't really recovered from the pandemic. People are going back to theaters now, and some films are doing very well. Overall, though, the metric for what constitutes a "success" is different. Films that would have made $100 Mil or more pre-COVID now grab between $25 and $40 Mil. Hollywood continues spending hundreds of millions of bucks on these productions but the returns aren't the same. A film like Honor Among Thieves may legitimately have needed all that money to crank out a worthy, handsome adventure, but if the audiences don't show up it'll be hard for these kinds of films to get made for this kind of cash.

I think what it boils down to is that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a very good film released at the wrong time. Five years ago I think this film would have made $150 Mil its opening weekend, easy. Now, production studio Paramount probably should have looked at the film, the name, and the budget and said, "you know... let's maybe spend half that." Studios are all going to have to start doing that math, figuring out how much they can reliably spend post-pandemic and still have hits. It'll lead to a lot of smaller movies (something movie goers have been asking for) and probably less films that look as handsome as Honor Among Thieves, it's true. But when a movie this good can be considered a flop, there's something off about Hollywood's math and the studio system.

Put another way: this film is really good. It deserves to be a hit but, sadly, Honor Among Thieves will likely be anything but. Maybe word of mouth will pick it up and more people will come out over the following weekends than is expected. This could have the kinds of legs so few studio films are able to achieve now, and if it does then we'll likely see it cross that $400 Mil "you were a success" mark. That's unlikely, though, and any plans for a sequel for this plucky and enjoyable group of heroes will likely be scrapped. And then Paramount will go, "fun and funny films set in a fantasy world? Honor Among Thieves didn't do well, so we should scrap all of them, no matter how much they'll cost. Give us more superheroes instead!" That's how Hollywood works.

If you haven't seen this film yet, you should. If you can get out to the theater (and are comfortable, post-pandemic, doing so) I would recommend it. I think we've all gotten more selective about the films we see in theaters but this is one of those adventures that is worth seeing on the big screen. It has everything it promises in the title: dungeons, dragons, and thieves. Plus, it's wrapped in a fun and funny package with a cast of truly likable characters. These are the kinds of films people say they want, so, hey, get out there and prove it if you can.