For better and for worse, this film feels like a D&D session. Mostly for better. It has the freewheeling feel of good D&D, an open possibility space that bends round character and puts fun first. The large amount of action set pieces in this (too many, for sure, but each independently fun) all follow a fail forward approach or have the underlying logic you would want from a good Dungeon Master: ‘that’s a fun idea, let’s make it work’. It is irreverent stuff, a push and pull between a serious world — with sincere character arcs and emotion — and then just a crew of folks goofing around. It’s D&D.
The story is also very classic D&D. A pair of loveable thieves, Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine (both giving excellent turns), bust out of jail in order for a family reunion. A botched heist, maybe one rooted in betrayal, got the pair locked up — and meant that Pine’s character (Edgin) has been away from his daughter for two years. Upon returning to his daughter, he finds her to be pseudo-adopted by Hugh Grant’s Forge, who is now also Lord of Neverwinter (thanks to the help of a spooky wizard, Sofina (Daisy Head)). It is soon clear that Forge betrayed them to begin with, and he (perhaps influenced by the spooky wizard, or perhaps just aligned with her evil wizardry) manages to turn Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) against her returned dad. At the centre of this is Edgin’s desire for a tablet of resurrection, the motivating factor behind the original heist. Because, of course, there’s a dead wife to deal with — this being a film and all. Edgin’s well told, sad backstory has him losing said wife and his main aim is to use a magic item to get her back. A magic item that Forge still has.
And thus, the stage is set for a heist, and for hijinks. A new gang is brought together, with Justice Smith being a real highlight as a hapless sorcerer (a sharply and clearly written character matched by an equally interesting and compelling performance). The film chronicles the job that needs to be done, presenting road blocks, side-quests and ever changing plans in order to get to the final conclusion (where exactly what you think is going to happen happens). It is a collection of setups and call-backs, a successful grouping of fantasy (or wider narrative) tropes. This is why it is very D&D. The majority of sessions feel this way: an overarching story that is necessarily tropey and broad, and that exists to facilitate moments of emergent play. However, this approach to storytelling works better in the improvisational space of a role playing game then it does in a codified movie. The broad beats are necessitated by role playing stories as they give players a clear possibility space. The feel of this is captured for the film, which is lovely, but the rote nature of the narrative work does feel like a detraction when it is purely presented to you. Admittedly, the tropes work and they satisfy in that predictable way; however, trope heavy roleplaying stories work better because these moments are fun to embody, because they link to what we know and allow us to subvert them (as opposed to just feeling a bit, well, known).
Within this, though, D&D glee is found. We adventure through stunning scenery and a well realised D&D settings. It is all nicely cribbed from the lore, and does give that feeling you want of existing in a wide and rich world, while also feeling kind of like it’s being made up on the fly (you know, D&D stuff). Characters are quippy and fun, pushing forward a yes-and approach which extends into action. Fighting sequences, especially those built around star of the show, Michelle Rodriguez (Holga, Edgin’s partner in crime). Holga uses the environment in her fights, pulling off atypical moves and clever touches that have the feel of players experimenting in their possibility space. It all also feels character motivated. The writing is strong enough here to have the feel of actors playing their character. Nobody is rich or textured, but everybody is enjoyably distinct and motivated in the ways a D&D character would be. It genuinely feels like they are motivated by Character Sheets (with the same level of background detail as the game allows) and you can almost hear the dice rolls during the action, where quick decisions follow the way a player would work.
To return to the writing, a good comparison point would be cultural critic, and current game developer, Austin Walker’s much shared blog about the writing in the video game Forspoken (2023). In this article, an excellent point is made that the issue with a lot of fantasy writing is it derives from a sense of discomfort with the setting. The jokes are aimed at the genre, deconstructive quips that position a character as above fantasy and irritated by it. This isn’t a one-to-one comparison to Honor Among Thieves, which isn’t about an outsider entering an unknown world. However, the tonal choices of Forspoken, as outlined in the blog, do illuminate the successes of this D&D adaptation. This film takes the right things seriously and the jokes are never at the property or based around undermining the world. The world is properly established and the jokes emerge from this, from the idea of goofy people in a sincere scenario. This is a film that is having fun with the setting, and with the property, as opposed to at its expense. The writing works because it extends from character and finds fun through the opportunities opened up by the world.
Though, the film still certainly has issues. The yes-and nature of the film leaves us with a bloated runtime. Every sequence is good, and showcases variety, but it is somewhat exhaustingly stitched together. The overall narrative structure being very expected doesn’t help here, as you are just waiting for it to resolve itself in the ways it has very obviously telegraphed. Once again, the feel of D&D works in its favour as an endearing adaptation but against some of its success as a film. The succession of roadblocks muddies the clearer narrative structure you’d expect from cinema, placing this in a space more akin to TV where the episodic breaks can facilitate diversions from a main goal without them feeling like bloat. Even when it is fun, we pull away from clarity in a way that can make it drag. A tighter structure would aid the feel of the film; however, the D&D DNA that runs through the film does justify so much. This is a fun fantasy adventure of the kind they don’t do anymore, a lovely double-bill with The Princess Bride (1987) — and clearly inspired by it.