We scouted "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" and can confirm that it's a veritable treasure

At long last, a D&D movie of which gamers need not be ashamed. Here's our list of its attributes and bonuses

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 31, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Chris Pine plays Edgin and Michelle Rodriguez plays Holga in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/ eOne)
Chris Pine plays Edgin and Michelle Rodriguez plays Holga in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/ eOne)

Past cinematic exploits marching under the "Dungeon & Dragons" name have made plenty of us hesitant to trust any stirrings of excitement related to "Dungeon & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves." Veterans seems to be the most adamant skeptics. They have their justifications – namely, three of them, all of which fly the "Dungeons & Dragons" banner. 

Younglings may not fully comprehend the apprehension, and that's understandable. To those gamers, Dungeons & Dragons has always been acceptable. Between the celebrity endorsements and its "Stranger Things" mainstreaming, people take the brand's relatively recent broad appeal for granted.  

This forgets the high fantasy wasteland that came before Peter Jackson's 2001 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring."

One year before the release of "Fellowship" its distributor, New Line Cinema, put its name behind another sword and sorcery adaptation that Salon's executive editor Andrew O'Hehir, in his previous life as this site's movie critic, condemned with, "This fantasy crap, fake-o effects and all, betrays princes of dice, masters of graph and wielders of bong." The first "Dungeons & Dragons" also stars Thora Birch and Jeremy Irons instead of Cate Blanchett and Sir Ian McKellen.

The success of "The Lord of the Rings" movies catapulted Elijah Wood, who played Frodo Baggins, into the next echelon of superstardom. Meanwhile Justin Whalin, the lead of "Dungeons & Dragons," is engaged in the most valiant work of all – he's a history teacher. As Legolas, Orlando Bloom proved elves could be elegant and f-i-n-e foin, erasing all reminiscence of whatever Marlon Wayans was going for in that other flick.

Not content to leave a crime alone, the producer of "Dungeons & Dragons" followed it with 2005's "Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God" and the 2012 "Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness," direct-to-DVD bombs best left in the Underdark. Each ran on Syfy during its B-movie era, which means many gamers saw them anyway, losing intelligence points in the bargain.

But to loosely quote Blanchett's Galadriel, "The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in . . . the Pine." And we saw it in the tempting trailer for "Dungeon & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves," which drew a few hesitant nerds to preview screenings.

As a member of one such scouting party, I can report that the pull quotes singing its praises aren't overselling it – except, maybe, the trade publication that called it the best movie of the year. (Let's not get too excited, people. We've barely brushed our knuckles against April's door.)

Calling it a rousing good time, though, is entirely accurate. "Honor Among Thieves" capitalizes on the unexpected buddy chemistry between Chris Pine as smooth-talking bard Edgin Darvis, and Michelle Rodriguez's exiled barbarian Holga Kilgore. Their intractable bond is forged not in war but in domesticity: Holga steps up to platonically co-parent Edgin's daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) when she sees this suddenly single dad falling down drunk on the job. 

To support themselves they build a small band of thieves that includes a mid-talented sorcerer, Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), and a rogue, Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), who scheme to part Faerûn's richer folk from their gold. The partnership ticks along smoothly until they're contracted by a wizard named Sofina (Daisy Head) for a heist that goes sideways. Edgin and Holga are captured, leaving Kira effectively orphaned.

Their first mission, then, is to return home to Kira. But the stakes quickly rocket skyward, forcing the duo to reunite the old band and add extra muscle by allying with a druid, Doric (Sophia Lillis).

"Honor Among Thieves" is about as complicated as a low-level campaign, but its immersive joy capitalizes on that simplicity, making the story vibrate with true affection for the game and its fandom.

In case you're still not convinced, we've broken down other reasons why "Honor Among Thieves" steals the crown.

The adaptation's reverence for the game includes an appreciation of its silliness 
Image_placeDungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesChris Pine plays Edgin in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)holder

While it's too early to refer to the new "Dungeons & Dragons" movie as part of an overall trend in adaptations, it is another screen work whose success rests in its creators not only simply knowing the product but strongly connecting it on a personal level. 


"The Last of Us" creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann credit their love of the narrative powering Druckmann's video game and valuing the feelings the story engenders for facilitating its successful adaptation to TV. "Honor Among Thieves" co-directors and writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein ("Horrible Bosses," "Game Night") have a similar connection to D&D.


Daley participated in a years-long game as an adult, and it shows in the cavalier jokes, the rowdy physical humor and bouts of heroic incompetence. Instead of abusing bombastic high fantasy English into tortured, shallow conversations everyone takes too seriously "Honor Among Thieves" characters speak, think and react in the way dice-throwing, smack-talking friends sitting around a table would, possibly (probably) while buzzed and giggly. 

Unlike past "D&D" flops, the story is observant of the game's rules
Image_plaDungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesSophia Lillis plays Doric in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)ceholder

Daley and Goldstein wisely refuse to be constricted by them, however. Seasoned gamers can debate the merits of how massively overpowered some of its heroes are while also excusing that indulgence because, again, this is a movie. Nitpicking over, say, how many times a druid can transform into an owlbear between long rests is excessively nerdy; also, who doesn't want to see that happen as many times as possible?


If you don't play the game but simply want to enjoy Pine bantering with Rodriguez, terms like "overpowered" and "owlbear" zip right by you, no problem. Daley and Goldstein wrote the script to be appreciated by the battle-experienced and folks who are just there for the laughs. So regardless of whether you know how a Speak With Dead spell is supposed to work, you'll get the joke. 

The filmmakers understand that dragons are kind of played out
Image_Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesMichelle Rodriguez plays Holga in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)placeholder

With a few exceptions – "House of the Dragon" and other George R.R. Martin titles, mainly – we've been there and done that in terms of the whole flying, firebreathing kaiju business. Still, "dragons" is in the title, which means we should expect Edgin, Holga and the gang to encounter a couple in their hikes around Faerûn. 


Happy the filmmakers meet that expectation by playing to the movie's comedy focus on a massive scale and very creatively, without downplaying the terrifying mortal danger presented by these monstrous killers, all without transforming the action into an unbecoming cartoon.

It uses its visual effects wisely if not sparingly
Image_placeDungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesDaisy Head plays Sofina in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)holder

In addition to hiring no-name actors for its sequels, past "Dungeons & Dragons" films cheaped out on the visual effects to a degree that you could feel the utter disdain its creators had for gamers and the fandom.


Part of that is a matter of financial constraints, of course. The 2012 movie had an estimated budget of $12 million versus the $151 million hoard propelling "Honor Among Thieves," courtesy of its co-producers Paramount and the Hasbro-owned eOne. More resources don't guarantee the money will be well spent, mind you; you can look at any overwrought CGI-reliant Marvel movie for examples of visual effects overloads that neglect to make the best use of the cast's abilities or to infuse the writing with soul.


"Honor Among Thieves" is almost entirely constructed out of digital fakery, yet finds a balance between enchanting digital creations and enhancements and situational humanity, or whatever that term's equivalent would be for half-elves and tieflings. Better still, the dramatic tension doesn't fall apart during its inevitable sorcery battles which, in lesser film and TV, burst into empty, dragging spectacles with adversaries lamely hurling balls of fake light at each other.

It's in on the jokes concerning character classes
Image_placeDungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesChris Pine plays Edgin in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)holder

What is the point of a bard, anyway? In most fantasy tales the heavy fighters lead the quest. They're the ones who get the job done, after all. Not here. Holga may be the muscle, but she's also a woman of few words who probably scores low in the intelligence and wisdom categories. She's fine with Edgin acting as the squad's leader, the guy whose main weapons are a lute and speechifying. 


In the same way we accept that bar fights get more dangerous if someone decides to punch up Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" on a jukebox, bards can cast spells in Dungeons & Dragons. Most wouldn't render believably in live action. (Amazon's "The Legend of Vox Machina," in contrast, visually realizes its bard Scanlan's magic admirably because it's a cartoon.)


But instead of engulfing its actors in rosy halos, Goldstein and Daley lean into the punchline about the apparent uselessness of bards by making Edgin a wheeling-dealing gabber whose main contribution is to strategize and inspire (a legitimate bard spell). That doesn't stop some of his companions from questioning his value.


Then we have Regé-Jean Page's Xenk Yendar, a paladin so devout and good that it makes him insufferable – which is precisely how paladins should come across in mixed company. Page is one of the few actors in the movie playing his part as if he's in a juvenile, terrible "Dungeons & Dragons" adaptation, sealing his performance as one of the movie's strongest assets.


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Its casting is purposeful and properly utilized
Image_placDungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesJustice Smith plays Simon, Chris Pine plays Edgin, Rege-Jean Page plays Xenk, Sophia Lillis plays Doric and Michelle Rodriguez plays Holga in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)eholder

Having a respected A-list actor in a hammy genre piece says nothing about its quality. Exhibit A: Dame Helen Mirren co-stars in "Shazam! Fury of the Gods," but so what?


However, "Honor Among Thieves" savvily capitalizes on the existing rep of its best-known actors. Pine's work in 2009's "Star Trek" and "A Wrinkle in Time" showcase his devoted father side; combine that with the playful energy he brought "Wonder Woman" heartthrob Steve Rogers, and there's Egdin. Rodriguez's Holga plays into her rep as an action-heavy with a kind heart who's all about family, a la "Fast & Furious."  


"Bridgerton" established Page as the unattainable dreamboat everybody wants to be around, prime attributes for a paladin, a class requiring high charisma. Another star's cameo exceeds these in terms of its context and the celebrity's participation; their delight in their appearance is completely unexpected, so that's all we'll say.


Lastly, there is a rare exception to the truism mentioned at the start of this section – you know, the thing we said about a famous actor's participation not being indicative of a movie's quality.

Hugh Grant is in it
Image_placehDungeons & Dragons: Honor Among ThievesHugh Grant plays Forge in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" (Paramount Pictures/eOne)older

Some people may wonder why Grant's presence is a credit to "Honor Among Thieves," especially after his condescending behavior toward an interviewer on the Oscars red carpet. That means you probably haven't been blessed with his performance in "Paddington 2." Correct that oversight as soon as possible.


Grant knows how to play a sensational heel to the hilt and has a knack for choosing movies many are primed to underestimate. Then he gloriously hams his way through every inch of proverbial celluloid in a way that makes you love him even more than you love hating him. That Grant believed in the potential of "Honor Among Thieves" enough to sign up for the adventure should tell you something.


By the time the end credits roll, you'll be glad you tagged along too.


"Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" premieres Friday, March 31 in theaters nationwide.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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