Cast your mind back, if you will, to early 2018. Into multiplexes came Game Night, a hilarious, original, non-superpowered action comedy that was almost universally praised. While it was never going to come anywhere close to the success of any number of ubiquitous franchise films, it made $117.7 million on a $37 million budget, and proved that mid-budget comedies can still be critically and commercially successful.
Game Night is the reason I was excited to see Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. I don’t know much about Hasbro’s tabletop role-playing game, but I do know that the film’s co-writers and directors, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley of Game Night fame, were a strong choice to salvage the woeful history of the franchise’s previous big-screen outings. With an impressive cast and an obviously significant budget bump from Goldstein and Daley’s first outing, I was looking forward to what this movie could be. Unfortunately, Dungeons & Dragons is much more of a mixed bag than Game Night, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its charms. They’re just fewer and farther between than I expected with these directors and resources, and many of the film’s issues start at the script level.
Honor Among Thieves feels like a script that Goldstein and Daley did punch-up comedy writing on, but not much else. They’ve had such an eye for creating memorable characters in their comedies, not just in Game Night, but also in the first Horrible Bosses film. I’m sure some of that was due to improvisation and input from the talented actors in those films, but even so, they had clear motivations and arcs that felt fairly unique and unpredictable within those zany constructs. Here, you get the feeling that the third credited writer, Michael Gilio, created the film’s characters and storytelling structure, and Goldstein and Daley just added some flavor to the broth. The problem is that the broth is not mixed well, and it makes some of the lesser ingredients stand out.
My biggest issue is Chris Pine’s character, Edgin. His being a widower and his motivation to rescue his daughter are tropes we’ve seen an infinite number of times before. That would be bad enough, but the fact that he doesn’t really contribute much to his ragtag posse’s plans is lazily played off as a joke numerous times, and even the smartest thing he does is arguably a well-worn trope of action-adventure films at this point. Still, even with all these misgivings, I have to give credit where credit is due — Pine is always a solid frontman. Even playing a scoundrel, he’s more than charming enough to keep a decent film like this rolling right along, even when its pacing gets incredibly awkward. It’s like how no one really listens to Gorillaz for Damon Albarn’s singing, but it usually fits the song.
The surprise of the film is Michelle Rodriguez as Holga, Edgin’s longtime partner-in-crime and surrogate mother to his daughter. Rodriguez rarely gets to play comedy, drama, and action star within one film, but here she passes all three tests with flying colors. She provides a deadpan counterbalance to the relative wackiness of the rest of the group, but also the badass persona she’s known for, plus a human element as Holga’s backstory is fleshed out. This involves perhaps the funniest scene in the whole movie, so I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that I don’t think anyone was expecting a certain cameo.
I was also surprised that Bridgerton heartthrob Regé-Jean Page had a relatively small role, especially compared to the other supporting protagonists, the shapeshifting druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), and the half-elf sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith). Page’s paladin Xenk is gone before he’s made much of an impression, a side effect of a film that simply has too much going on and barely knows how to fit it all into two-and-a-quarter hours.
Hugh Grant playing villainous Hugh Grant character is another highlight, but at times it feels like he’s in a completely different film. Slight tonal misalignments like this are ultimately what leave Thieves feeling like less than the sum of its parts — that, and its clunky flashbacks and exposition dumps. Still, for a franchise with so much baggage to overcome, the talents of Goldstein and Daley managed to make something genuinely fun, funny, and engaging. It might be the surprise of the year, but just don’t go in expecting one of the very best of the year. Hopefully, its success will allow its directors to return to original comedies and maybe knock another one out of the park. | George Napper