“You’re not a lot of fun, are you,” notes barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) to brave fighter Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) in the new “Dungeons & Dragons” film, making two jokes at once.
The first is that Xenk, a paladin (or holy knight) in “D&D” lingo, is everything BUT fun – gorgeous, noble, heroic, smart, and did we mention gorgeous? He’s just REALLY not fun, or funny. He’s so not funny, it’s hilarious.
The second, broader joke is that “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” hotly awaited by devotees of the decades-old role-playing game, makes darned sure to be fun, and funny – enough to laugh at itself. And that’s the thing that makes it work.
At least, for a newbie like me. I’ve never played the game, I confess. But this is a movie, not a game, and I’m here to tell you how it works for over two hours at the multiplex. Which is to say, surprisingly, sometimes delightfully well – even if you have no clue what a paladin or Red Wizard or Harper is, or if the term “Dungeon Master” sends your mind straight to “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
The most obvious reason for this success, besides fleet-footed direction by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is star Chris Pine, whose sunny charisma and smooth knack for comedy, plus an ability to seem like he’s both inside the movie and outside looking in, keeps everything bubbling.
He’s ably assisted by Rodriguez, plus young accomplices Justice Smith as a confidence-challenged (but sweet) wizard and Sophia Lillis as a shape-shifting druid. And then we have a graying Hugh Grant, playing the heck out of yet another comic villain role – a character almost as curmudgeonly as he was on the Oscar red carpet.
Plus there’s a cameo from another big star, but more on that in a minute. Because first we have to mention the pudgy dragon. Yes, pudgy. Whatever dragons eat, and we can only try to imagine, he’s had too many.
But back to Pine, aka the bard Edgin, whom we first meet in a dank, freezing prison cell. He’s – well, he’s knitting. Nearby sits Holga (Rodriguez), and her own hobby is eating. She’s not a cordial sort, especially when food supply is at risk.
An appearance in front of a judicial council, begging for a pardon, gives Edgin the chance to tell his backstory. Turns out he wasn’t always a criminal; he was a Harper, part of a spy guild acting for the greater good, but he attracted the ire of the Red Wizards of Thay, which led to the tragic murder of his wife.
Teaming with Holga, he sets out to find the magical Tablet of Reawakening that would return his wife to him and especially their baby daughter Kira (played by Chloe Coleman as a youngster). But they get captured, and their accomplice Forge (Grant), who somehow escapes, swears to take care of Kira.
Edgin, a master planner, devises a jailbreak right during the pardon hearing. They discover Kira is now living in a walled city with Forge, a con-man who turns out (gasp!) to have planned the whole thing, and has convinced her that Dad betrayed her for riches. And now he’s allied with Sofina, a terrifying sorceress (Daisy Head). Forge not only refuses to give Kira back but sends Edgin and Holga to their deaths. Holga, however, quickly dispatches all the soldiers meant to kill them – all while Edgin tries, and fails, to untie a rope.
Now they need that tablet, but first they need a magical helmet (bear with us.) The quest, upon which they’re joined by Simon (Smith) and Doric (Lillis), leads to the film’s most entertaining scenes. One of these is an impressive, fast-paced sequence where shape-shifter Doric infiltrates enemy lines and then, chased by Sofina, morphs seamlessly into various animal forms and back to herself again.
Another is a comic bit where Pine’s Edgin tries to elicit key information from a series of corpses. Summoned to life by an increasingly effective Simon, each corpse can answer five questions before returning to the grave forever. Edgin keeps wasting his chances with questions like “Did that count as a question?”
And a prime comic moment comes from none other than Bradley Cooper (see, worth the wait!). We’ll reveal nothing but the observation that this cameo is small, but packs a punch.
Finally we have Xenk (Page), perfectly cast as a paladin so, well, perfect that he delivers babies in between vanquishing enemies, and provides the crucial help Edgin needs. But for all sorts of reasons, Edgin can’t bring himself to like the guy. Most of all, he can’t deal with his lack of understanding of irony, sarcasm, and especially humor.
He’s probably right. Heroism is all well and good, but humor is crucial. That’s a lesson this film has, luckily, already figured out.