Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, served for years as our neighborhood’s Dungeon Master and owned all the Advanced D&D hardcover manuals published through 1986, by which time all my friends had moved far away, found other pursuits, or quit me specifically. Our group breakup was slow in coming, and the final session ended acrimoniously through no small fault of my own. Eventually my subscriptions to Dragon and Dungeon Adventures magazines expired, and I stopped keep track of updates and new products in the world of TSR’s classic tabletop RPG, unless you count the handful of time my wife and I attended Gen Con and were surrounded by the company’s products. One silver lining: my departure left me with no reason to see the misbegotten 2000 film that took its name in vain.
My attention wandered so far away from the game that years passed before I was aware TSR had been acquired by Wizards of the Coast, the Magic: the Gathering masterminds. Still more years passed before I learned they in turn had been gobbled up by Hasbro, thus moving D&D under the same corporate umbrella as G.I. Joe, the Transformers, and, arguably the source of their company’s best film to date, Clue. I likewise had virtually no emotional investment when trailers began popping up for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Once it was released and word-of-mouth picked up momentum, then I gave it a chance. I entered the theater, I mentally rolled a d20 saving throw vs. Awfulness, and the imaginary die blessedly came up a 19.
The world of D&D was in safe hands with Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who previously directed Game Night and were two of the six credited writers on Spider-Man: Homecoming. Along with co-writer Michael Gilio, they’ve nailed the basics that a fulfilling D&D campaign needs: a party of protagonists with different classes (whether lawful heroes or chaotic antiheroes), a quest, one or more MacGuffins, monsters, and rewards. Extra credit is earned for each dungeon or dragon added to the mix. As fans of such tabletop-RPG-based empires as Critical Role have noticed, it helps even more if the party is entertaining to watch and you don’t feel jealous that they get to play and you don’t.
A solid mix of characters and backstory brings all those hundreds of pages of rules, modules, expansion sets, miniatures, and other ancillary products to life, no easy trick to pull off in a milieu where narrative success depends on what your players bring to it rather than on established “name” characters. Star Trek‘s loss is their gain as a nimbly snarky Chris Pine leads the party into the frays. Pine is Edgin Darvis, former member of a prestigious good-guy force despite being a mere bard (a character class that to me always seemed more fun than strategic) who watched his wife die and lost his daughter as the result of backstabbing shenanigans committed by a former teammate named Forge (Hugh Grant, perfectly vain and weaselly). Edgin made plans along with a more faithful BFF, the barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez, action hero!), to obtain a MacGuffin that could bring his wife back from the dead, which would sound contrived in any other pop culture universe but in fact is an established spell in D&D if you know a sufficiently advanced spellcaster or your Dungeon Master allows you to turn up the right magic artifact in a treasure chest or in a monster’s loot after combat ends.
Alas, a few bad dice rolls get Edgin and Holga tossed in prison for a while. Eventually they escape, but learn Forge has become the wealthy ruler of the land and de facto adopted parent to Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman from Big Little Lies and 65), who’s been turned against her dad. Edgin has badinage at the ready for every possible situation except for dealing with his failures — some his own responsibility, some made-up. As the plot twists and turns, Our Heroes have multiple quests going: find MacGuffin #1 to resurrect his dead wife; rescue Kira, who’s basically MacGuffin #2; track down MacGuffin #3, a magic helmet that’ll let them infiltrate Forge’s treasure room to do some retaliatory thievery and steal MacGuffins #4-to-infinity; creatively use other magic items they acquire along the way as needed; and, they eventually learn, stop a Very Bad Thing from happening that no one knew was coming. Big heroism was never Plan A, but the Thing can’t be conscientiously avoided. If they tried to, their Dungeon Master (i.e., the filmmakers) wouldn’t let them skip that part anyway because they spent way too many hours coming up with it.
Edgin and Holga recruit other allies along the way, some more effective than others. Justice Smith, a high-strung sidekick frequently frightened by CG creatures in such films as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Detective Pikachu, here plays a high-strung sidekick frequently frightened by CG creatures who’s also a klutzy, low-level magic-user…but whose fumbling Simon, in a reversal of his typecasting fortune, gets to demonstrate an important game mechanic: what it looks like when a character levels up. (You can practically hear his experience points tallying upward.) Also along for the ride is Sophia Lillis (young Beverly from Stephen King’s It) as Doric, a tiefling environmental activist who was already working on taking down Forge on her people’s behalf before the party came along. (I had to look up tieflings, which were introduced to D&D after my time. Mostly they sound like…Elves Mark II?) For a few minutes they manage to recruit Bridgerton superstar Regé-Jean Page as a hunky, humorless paladin who leads them through one (1) module; upon completion, he announces “My work here is done!” and exits the film lest his Perfect Adventurer turn all this into a too-short Monty Haul campaign.
If you’re a total newcomer to D&D, Honor Among Thieves functions perfectly fine as a standalone well-above-average fantasy romp that’s far more tongue-in-cheek than its Tolkienian forebears ever were. (Grim-faced fantasy-lit purists might be rankled at the irreverence; I wouldn’t know.) Not until afterward did I learn the whole thing’s set in the Forgotten Realms expansion set, which likewise came after my time, though I did recognize a few tossed-off place names from merchandise I’ve glimpsed fleetingly throughout the decades (Baldur’s Gate! Waterdeep!). It’s all a bit busy as the various quests and motivations and Character Moments intertwine, but it eventually clicks even if you can’t draw up a flowchart while watching. Viewers with a working knowledge of D&D monsters will recognize some exclusive pulls from the old manuals (Mimics! Orcbears! Gelatinous Cubes! Liches! Displacer beasts, which I admit I’d forgotten but remember now!) rather than common myths and legends you can find in any given sword-‘n’-sorcery tale. The biggest creature is, of course, a classic red dragon, though it’s the least physically fit dragon this side of Smaug.
Anyone who just wants to kick back and enjoy some blockbuster popcorn can rest assured the visual effects are far better than the floppy-disk graphics of its 2000 predecessor. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are edited with slightly longer, more coherent takes than your average big-budget spectacles, with Fast/Furious‘ Letty and Commander Bridgerton each leading the most rousing melees. Fellow fans of Final Fantasy, Skyrim, and other such video games can count how many times they’re reminded of visuals and concepts they’ve seen before. And, ameliorating one of my chief concerns going into this, some of the weak placeholder quips in the trailer are replaced with funnier takes. That definitely helped later in the film when Pine’s incessant glibness began to grate a bit…until he soon reminded us of Edgin’s wounded yet hope-filled heart still wobbling along behind his motormouth defenses.
I don’t feel compelled to go buy the latest D&D manuals and sign up for the nearest online tabletop clan (I only have so much free time, and nowadays I suck at group memberships in general), but it was a welcome joy to revisit the game that was both a huge part of my childhood and a lingering regret in adulthood. A while back I’d begun brainstorming notes for a possible sequel to my 2019 “Kid Dungeon Master” entry linked above, but set them aside when I realized they were depressing and redundant. This film, I think, serves as a far cheerier follow-up reunion — a reminder to myself that I’m welcome back to this world anytime.
Also, fun trivial coda: as fellow Gen-X-ers might expect, I did indeed cackle my head off late in the film at the Easter-eggy nod to the old Saturday morning cartoon. I understood that reference.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other villains include Daisy Head from Netflix’s Shadow and Bone (whom I last saw in the chilling Sandman episode “24/7”) as a Red Wizard who acts as Forge’s chief ally until she reveals she’s no mere lackey; and Spencer Wilding, a.k.a. Rogue One‘s Darth Vader. You may already have seen headlines about the surprise cameo from a Very Special Guest Star as Holga’s halfling ex-husband, an Academy Award Winner who’s no stranger to playing CG-augmented characters half his true height.
Eagle-eyed viewers who can freeze-frame the arena battles in the final act might catch glimpses of guitarist/activist/SiriusXM DJ Tom Morello bringing his very own D&D character to life (I still chuckle when I remember his Star Trek: Voyager cameo), as well as young Jude Hill, the star of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship…]
…we return to the cemetery where Our Heroes played out the funniest scene of all, bringing corpses to life and asking them five questions apiece…except one. Here in the end credits, the last interviewee, whom they left one question short of returning to the afterlife, still sits up in his coffin, pleading to no one in particular, “Hello? Could someone please ask me another question? Anyone?”