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REVIEW: ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’

When I was watching Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, I found myself wondering at the strange and somewhat unfamiliar feeling it was inducing in me. I couldn’t place it until it suddenly hit me: This is fun.

Remember fun? It’s a thing that existed once, before ideology came along and ruined everything. A fun song like “Baby It’s Cold Outside”—one of the most fun songs ever, in fact—can no longer be tolerated because ideologists decided it’s no longer a depiction of a welcome seduction but rather the horrifying tale of a date rape. A fun movie like Blazing Saddles—one of the most fun movies ever, in fact—is by common assent a work that could never be made today because it’s… well, who the hell knows what it is, but its own creators wouldn’t even be able to conceive of the racially charged situations that are the heart of its wild comedy.

You get the sense that people who make works of popular art are censoring their own thoughts as they go to create properties that are anodyne and inoffensive to the cultural gatekeepers who sit with giant stamps reading “Acceptable” and “Unacceptable.” The problem is that you can’t achieve fun that way. Fun is loose-limbed and free-flowing, and it emerges from a condition of improvisatory freedom, not from an endless road featuring an endless series of red flags and yellow lights.

Could you make something ideologically au courant out of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves? Sure you could. Disney managed to tank its own $150 million kid cartoon Strange World by trying to establish a new landmark in the history of wokeness by making its central character a teenage boy’s same-sex crush. Anything can be politicized. Anything can be filtered through an activist sensibility that sees storytelling as a way to instruct our youth in proper progressive attitudes. Resisting that impulse even as you honor some of cultural progressivism’s central foundations—in this case, a properly multicultural team of protagonists—seems almost heroic these days.

That’s not the only pitfall the writer-directors of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves—Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley—have avoided. They have also managed to translate a tabletop game into a successful film. I know of only one other such success, and on first release it was an abject failure: the 1985 movie Clue, with multiple endings corresponding to possible conclusions to the mystery game, which found new life and new status as a beloved touchstone in the decades that followed its box-office egg-laying.

Goldstein and Daley, who made the terrific adult comedy Game Night in 2018, not only came up with a plot (together with cowriter Michael Gilio) that allows those of us who have never played D&D to follow along, they made it spirited and funny and blessedly free of political cant.

Chris Pine plays a once-heroic spy in a mythical medieval and somewhat magical world who has fallen from his noble calling and become part of a con-man troupe. His fellow thieves are a barbarian (Michelle Rodriguez), a bad sorcerer (Justice Smith), and a carny (Hugh Grant, whose work in his second career as a character actor is among the great pleasures of cinemagoing and TV-watching these days).

The band breaks up when Pine and Rodriguez land in prison. When they bust out, they discover that Grant has somehow risen to become the semi-dictator of a populous city and the caretaker of Pine’s daughter. He’s up to no good, and defeating him and the witch who’s working with him sets them on a series of somewhat wacky adventures.

While the motley crew here practically screams Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie this one most resembles is Ladyhawke, the light-hearted and romantic medieval adventure from (again) 1985, in which a young Matthew Broderick helped a cursed couple (Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer) find their way back to true love. Broderick there played a variant on Mickey Rooney. Chris Pine here is channeling some combination of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, dashing and cynical and amusing all at once.

He is just so good here he reminds you of the supernatural qualities of the first name “Chris” in contemporary filmmaking: The only people who have his indelible blend of romantic physical authority and crackerjack comic timing are the three other Chrises—Pratt (of Guardians), Hemsworth (of Thor), and Evans (of Captain America).

They’re fun. This movie is fun. And I really missed fun.

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