For several decades, the universe of Dungeons & Dragons -- the fantasy role-playing game, or RPG, that pioneered an entire genre of gaming -- has been ruled by the king geeks of every UV-lit rec room and every freshman dorm. You know the guys (and sometimes gals) I'm talking about. Yes, they are often unathletic and sometimes downright troll-like in appearance. But they possess a peculiar charisma all their own. They're masters of graph paper, 10-sided dice and bongs made from thrift-store lamps.
It's these guys I feel bad for after seeing the lame, faintly agreeable spectacle of "Dungeons & Dragons," a movie apparently authorized by Wizards of the Coast, the game manufacturer. There's no real harm, I guess, in making another low-rent fantasy epic that mingles watered-down elements of the Harry Potter series, "Star Wars" and J.R.R. Tolkien. "Dungeons & Dragons" offers a would-be teen heartthrob in the leading role, several modestly enjoyable performances and a few entertaining action sequences. But it's a weak brew that has none of the game's intensely absorptive quality and would bore sophisticated 11-year-olds. It might seem about right as a Saturday afternoon offering on the Sci Fi Network. All the dungeon masters, warriors and illusionists out there who have devoted countless late-night hours to D&D have a right to feel disrespected, if not insulted.
Although the special effects in "Dungeons & Dragons" are perfectly acceptable, as fake-o computer graphics go, there's a certain haphazard quality to the film that derives from many sources. Producer-director Courtney Solomon has never made a movie before, the script by Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright consists of material that seems to have eroded away from better films and many of the actors seem to have wandered in from other projects, director's notes still in hand. As Empress Savina, who hopes to democratize the magical realm of Izmer, Thora Birch still seems to be playing the resentful, affectless daughter in "American Beauty": All right, yes, the common people should be free, but really she doesn't give a crap. Sneering English actor Bruce Payne, who's always a hoot, puts on some white lipstick and a crimson cape and reprises his rather queeny, villainous role from "Highlander: Endgame."
No one can accuse Jeremy Irons, who plays Profion, the evil magician who hopes to usurp the empress's power, of being a poor sport. He attacks everyone and everything around him as though he were playing King Lear at a suburban community theater, all goggle-eyes, exaggerated double takes and full-throated oratory. "With a dragon army at my command I can crush the empress!" he cries joyfully, bending at the waist and making little claws out of his hands. Jim Carrey couldn't have played the part with more gusto. Any sci-fi geek whose memory stretches back to the 1970s will be thrilled and a little saddened to see Tom Baker (best loved of all British TV's Doctor Whos) in a brief appearance as King of the Elves. His grace and presence momentarily make "Dungeons & Dragons" seem to have the noble ambitions it can only aspire to.
Unhappily, most of the film is concerned not with these peripheral characters, but with Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans), a pair of wisecracking thieves whose destiny is to save the world or whatever. With his long, chestnut lashes, cherubic cheeks and silky complexion, Ridley is significantly prettier than his female love interest, a wholesome, magic-wielding librarian named Marina (Zoe McLellan). Along with Whalin's boy-band cuteness, however, comes a smug, smirking quality that's undoubtedly meant to communicate high spirits but mainly suggests that neither he nor anybody else involved is taking "Dungeons & Dragons" too seriously.
As for the buffoonish and cowardly Snails, I think Wayans needs to have a talk with Pierre Delacroix, the tortured buppie TV executive played by his brother Damon in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled." Sure, the shuffling, inept sidekick is a Marlon Wayans specialty, but in a genre that offers very few roles for actors of color (and whose fan base, perhaps as a result, is overwhelmingly white) there's no excuse for trafficking in offensive stereotypes.
Despite their roguish intentions, Ridley and Snails get involved, of course, in defending Empress Savina from Profion's evil designs. The bar scene from "Star Wars" is ripped off, for the 53rd time in fantasy-film history. Ridley leaps athletically through a maze that features deadly pendulums, jets of fire and rotating knives (a pleasing scene, but a pretty weak effort to capture the flavor of the D&D game). In perhaps the film's best effect, Snails is sucked into a carpet made of slimy quicksand, only to be retrieved by the nefarious Damodar (Payne), Profion's lieutenant.
Aided by a lissome elf and a grumpy dwarf, the duo embarks on a quest involving glowing rubies and secret scrolls. (But no, I repeat no magic rings!) Marina decides to help them, and after she kisses Ridley her glasses disappear and her backswept math-girl hairdo is magically transformed into a hipper center-part. Sex, as always, is problematic in this kind of teen-oriented movie; soon thereafter she has an unpleasant semi-erotic encounter with a brain-sucking parasite. Our heroic group must battle Damodar for possession of a powerful thingummy that can control red dragons, which may or may not be bigger and meaner than the regular green kind. The thingummy itself is called a "rod," but strongly resembles my friend's old Dragon Bong. (A connection to the true D&D universe at last!)
Internet rumors have suggested that New Line might use "Dungeons & Dragons" to unveil a new trailer for Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, whose first installment is due next Christmas. (If such a trailer is ready, they didn't show it to critics.) Such an attraction might be the only way to make this movie a hit, but even two minutes of Jackson's footage are likely to drive home exactly how damp an affair "Dungeons & Dragons" is. I mean, maybe it's better than "Mortal Kombat 2," but that's about the right frame of reference. If you really, really like this kind of thing, you've undoubtedly seen worse. But those of you at home with your dungeon charts, stacks of Pink Floyd CDs and fully loaded hookahs are better off staying there. Who knows if that '78 LeSabre will start in this weather anyhow?