In the middle of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” there’s an action sequence that embodies everything I’m looking for from a fantastical action comedy of this ilk.
Doric (Sophia Lillis), a tiefling druid (for those not well-versed in Dungeons & Dragons speak, a tiefling is a humanoid creature, while druids can change into different animals) attempts a daring escape from a palace. Soldiers hot on her heels, she skids through castle halls and outside into the city streets, shapeshifting into whatever animal fits her needs at any given moment. The filmmaking is slick and fast-paced as Doric changes from fly, to mouse, to human, to deer, and so on, every transition seamless and the structure of the chase permeated with equal parts humor and tension.
When Doric finally makes it out, she meets back up with her team – Edgin (Chris Pine), a barbarian named Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), and a sorcerer named Simon (Justice Smith). But while we’re still riding on the highs of Doric’s escape, the film reintroduces a bit from before the sequence began. The bit, involving Doric’s transformation into a deer, wasn’t all that funny the first time. This time, it sucks all the life out of the film completely.
That’s what kept prickling under my skin as I watched “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.” For me – someone who admittedly has never played Dungeons & Dragons – the movie was entertaining enough, with a few great set pieces, charming actors, and humor reminiscent of Monty Python – that is, if Monty Python had a budget of upwards of $150 million. But as much as they might try, the cast of “Dungeons & Dragons” doesn’t fully have the uncanny comic ability of the Monty Python troupe to ride a bit past its logical conclusion. The film is at its best when it’s not working overtime to undercut its action, fantastical absurdity, or emotional core with quippy one-liners or a wink at the camera.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” begins with partners in crime Edgin and Holga breaking out of prison after a years-long stint for thievery. The mission is clear – find Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) and find the resurrection tablet that will bring his long gone wife back from the dead. The first part of that equation comes quite easily, as Kira is now under the care of their former partner-turned-lord Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant). But Kira can’t forgive her father’s absence so easily, and Forge’s shady partnership with a red wizard (Daisy Head) proves dastardly. To beat Forge, save Kira, and find the tablet, they’ll need some help.
The escape from the palace isn’t the only action set piece the film has going for it, but it might be its best. Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley lean hard into the sequence’s shape-shifting absurdities without ever letting up on the gas pedal, effectively keeping you on the edge of your seat while still grounding the set piece in the simple tension of a chase.
There are other moments, not just of the action variety, that also achieve this balance of ludicrous and real. When the group must wake up a slew of battleworn corpses to find an ancient relic, the dead men – voiced by the Australian comedy group Aunty Donna – are as soft-spokenly sweet as they are gnarled and terrifying. The film doesn’t call out that dichotomy so much as it just lets it cook, trusting the inherent humor of the contrast to be enough. Unfortunately, particularly toward the beginning of the film, “Dungeons & Dragons” spends a maddening amount of time attempting to be self-aware rather than letting the absurdity speak for itself. Moments of action, emotion, or humor, are almost all entirely capped off by a tension breaking wisecrack that immediately deflates any charm the film carried.
As the movie’s star, Pine is saddled with much of the emotional weight of the film while simultaneously serving as the aforementioned tension breaker. But, as much as the tendency might prove a little grating, I would rather watch Pine deliver a cheesy one-liner than almost any other major blockbuster star today, and he’s proven to be quite adept at walking the line between quip and heart. Whether it be “Wonder Woman” or the “Star Trek” films, he has a strange ability to signal to the audience that he’s in on the joke without sacrificing emotional integrity.
The other cast members have their moments, and the collective chemistry between the group is quite strong as a whole. There are a few scenes where they are so in tune with each other on a physical, comedic, and emotional level, that I started to once again feel that same exhilaration I got from the palace chase sequence. When “Dungeons & Dragons” trusts its story, characters, and absurdity enough to speak for themselves, it works. But when it doesn’t, the spell is easily broken.