“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (dir. John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein) – Make your saving throw and still get charmed

Poster for "Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves"

On July 8th, 2000, in an episode of the NBC teen dramedy Freaks and Geeks, 15-year-old Sam Weir (John Francis Daley, who would go on to co-direct this film) explained the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons:

“We sit around and crack jokes and eat junk food all night while we’re fighting dragons and saving princesses and stuff. It’s pretty fun.”

The scene is striking in retrospect for the sheer number of successful future comics that appeared, including Samm Levine, Martin Starr, and James Franco (the series also featured some of the first appearances of Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, and Jason Segel), many of whom would go on to create a body of comedic work with a mix of scripted and improvised dialogue, frequently collaborating with the writer of the episode, Paul Feig, as well as his show co-creator Judd Apatow. What does any of this have to do with D&D? Well, first, improvisors are, without exception, a huge bunch of nerds. But also, fundamentally, D&D is an improv game. It’s based on rules, and the players’ and dungeon master’s choices have to exist within some version of them. But it’s also a special, off-the-cuff, live event that will only occur in exactly that way one time, and as comedian Ben Schwartz told my Seattle audience last weekend before spinning up a long-form improv show, “If you try to tell your friends about anything that happened here, it’s going to sound like a whole bunch of nonsense” (can confirm).

This requirement to balance coherent storytelling with freewheeling anarchy might explain why a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons has some unique adaptation challenges compared to video games (which also have a fairly spotty cinematic record). If you want to adapt a video game, your choices exist on a spectrum between “make a version of the game as played by the best player ever” and “just slap the name onto an generic adventure tale that vaguely resembles it”. Previous attempts to adapt D&D have largely opted for the second method – but this feels like the first attempt to capture the loose, jokey, improvisational chaos that is fundamental to the appeal of the game. You’re telling a story, sure, and that story ultimately has to make some kind of sense. But you’re also making choices ranging from the rational to the ridiculous, and rolling the dice as to the outcomes of those choices. A skilled DM will attempt to balance the madcap randomness of gameplay with the fun and coherence of the story (usually by selectively breaking rules as needed) – and that seems to be the difficult path that these filmmakers chose to tread – or at least convincingly imitate – with the script of Honor Among Thieves. And to my unrelenting delight, it worked.

The story starts in media res with merry bard Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) sharing a prison cell with his partner, barbarian Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), who quickly reinforces her barbarian bonafides by fracturing an orc along several geometric planes for creeping on her while she was eating her daily jailhouse potato (per Edgin: “pretty much the highlight of her day”). If I may pause a moment and praise the sublime casting of Rodriguez as a barbarian – this is a classic performance of a D&D character with high Strength and low Intelligence on her character sheet. That’s to say, Holga is a dumb meathead who can rip people’s heads from their shoulders, and not only does Rodriguez play the character’s thickness and brutality for laughs quite effectively; she also executes stunningly brutal fight choreography. It’s a beastly dance, and the closest we’ve seen to Rodriguez whooping superheroic amounts of ass besides her various bouts with UFC fighters during her career as the tank of the Fast party.

While the thieves rot in prison for a heist gone wrong, their former partner, conman and rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) has used the proceeds from their failed heist (both pecuniary and arcane) to elevate himself to the noble in charge of the city of Neverwinter, with Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head) as his silent and lethal partner, and Edgin’s long-lost daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) as his ward. After it becomes clear that they’ll need to steal treasure and family alike back from the greedy Forge, they devise an elaborate heist to break into the city vaults on a day when every noble in Faerûn will be coming to town to bet on the local arena tournament. And yes, that is almost the exact plot of Ocean’s Eleven, but let’s not focus on that. Speaking as a D&D player who once freely ripped off Pirates of the Caribbean for one of my campaigns, that feels like par for the course, and hardly works against the film’s appeal.

Still from "Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves"

What makes Honor Among Thieves work so well is that it takes pains to justify the assembly of the party and give each character a personality and a compelling reason to be there – namely, they’re all threatened in some way by Forge and Sofina’s horrific rule of Neverwinter – and a backstory which made me care about their survival and success. Simon (Justice Smith) is a low-level mage with appropriately low confidence – a partner from the previous heist who feels guilty for its outcome, which allowed himself to escape while Edgin and Holga faced the music. Holga is an exile from her tribe and became something of a sister to Edgin, as well as a surrogate parent to Kira, whose birth mother died when she was too young to remember. Doric (Sophia Lillis from It), a tiefling druid living in the woods, is directly threatened by the Bolsonaro-worthy forest destruction that Forge’s expansion of Neverwinter has wrought upon them. Xenk Yendar (Regé-Jean Page), the paladin, in addition to looking forthright and dependable every moment he swaggers around in his cape, refuses the call to adventure, but is willing to help the party out where his war ended, as a mere survivor of the Red Wizards’ conquest of his home country. And Edgin himself…he wants his daughter back, but also has to grapple with the trauma that his separation from Kira has caused her, even as she repeats back the poison that Forge has fed into her ear during her time in Neverwinter. Forge may be a selfish usurper, but he really does like having Kira around, albeit in a gross, possessive way (the idea of molding a young mind to believe whatever lies he spins for her is genuinely appealing to him), which means Edgin can’t merely steal his daughter back. He has to persuade her that she belongs back with her father. And that’s one of several strong emotional cores embedded in this heist.

Grant, as I called out in my 10YA retrospective of Cloud Atlas, is simply unmatched at playing an unrepentant shitheel. Forge’s glee at seizing power and taunting his former friends for accidentally helping him do so is…well, roguish. He doesn’t want the credit in public for all the amazing bad things he did, but he’ll happily monologue about it in private, as long as he has plenty of malevolent magicians and stabby soldiers to do his dirty work out of sight. Edgin, meanwhile, has to be likable in public, because that’s what Bards do – and this is where Pine brings his best Kirk-worthy optimism (along with a fairly pleasant singing voice) to the group. He is not only essential to selling the nobility of their quest to skeptical would-be helpers, but his bravado amounts to a compelling personal arc, because winning back his daughter’s favor will require the very things he is least suited for faking: self-awareness and remorse. This bard has to learn that being likable is not enough – you need to be reliable as well. And Pine plays every bit of nuance that this arc requires, including Edgin’s persistent struggle to stop defending his good intentions in the face of his many bad choices.

In the lobby afterward, I likened this film to “the best D&D session ever”. I wish to clarify my meaning here, because while it is literally true that this is the best D&D film ever made, what I mean is that Honor Among Thieves contained all of the peaks of a well-run D&D campaign, one right after another. The close shaves and quick reshuffling of strategy after a bad roll was all there – as was brilliant choreography and visualization of the absurd reality of an entire party attacking simultaneously during each six-second round. If all of the best parts of a campaign occurred in a single rowdy, Mountain Dew-soaked night, without any table drama or rules-lawyering or spell slot fuckery – with good ideas rewarded by creative counterattacks from the DM, without every choice succeeding, but each one resulting in the sort of improvised flailing that molds it into an even more insane plan with each moment – it might look something like this movie. And I’d be talking my friends’ ears off about it the next day until they begged me to stop.

Like any good DM, it also welcomes newcomers. Yes, if you’re a player, you will cackle a bit as you see a barrage of magic missiles explode against a displacer beast, but even if you’ve never heard of any of that nerd shit, the script gives you just enough detail to skate freely into this world as a fun, familiar fantasy place, just like Stardust and The Princess Bride before it.

Just roll with it. You’ll do fine.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” (2013) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Stoker"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

CW: Sexual assault

“You know, I’ve often wondered why it is we have children in the first place. And the conclusion I’ve come to is… At some point in our lives we realize things are screwed up beyond repair. So we decide to start again. Wipe the slate clean. Start fresh. And then we have children. Little carbon copies we can turn to and say, ‘You will do what I could not. You will succeed where I have failed.’ Because we want someone to get it right this time. But not me… Personally speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”

-Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman)

Evie’s “fuck you, child o’ mine” speech, delivered directly to the face of her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska), happens near the end of Stoker, and thanks to both Kidman’s chilling delivery and its prominent placement in the film’s trailer, it is one of the only things I remembered about this Park Chan-wook film, written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller and punched up by playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, whom I primarily knew from her work on the 2009 erotic drama Chloe. I’m a little more selective with my 10YA selections these days, trying to revisit movies because I expect I’ll have something new to say about them. Now that I’ve been a parent for most of the last decade, I thought this could be an interesting exercise in pondering how far gone a parent-child relationship would have to be for me to say something like this.

I suppose I could’ve gone with India’s opening monologue instead, but her insistence that she can hear what others don’t hear, and see what others don’t see, plays initially like the mere self-importance of youth, and not a literal, plot-critical heightening of the senses. With the minor exception of her Aunt Gin (brief appearance by Jacki Weaver), India is the first to understand the precise danger surrounding her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who appears in her life for the first time upon the tragic, car-crash death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Charlie spins a tale of adventure and world travel that explains his long absence from the family (this is the first time Evie has met him as well). But by the time her realization occurs, India has already developed an odd, incestuous connection with him, so her knowledge doesn’t matter in the way it perhaps ought to. I won’t be shy about spoiling the ways in which creepy Uncle Charlie isn’t exactly what he seems, so consider this an additional warning. But let’s talk about The Family for a minute. The Stokers are wealthy – they live in a mansion and dress with stolid, old-fashioned formality, including India’s annual parental gift of saddle shoes to emphasize her child-like innocence (the film contains a number of unsubtle visual nods to this point). Their manner, as well as the title and marketing of the film, seem deliberately intended to evoke vampirism – but the Stokers don’t need to be vampires to just seem kinda generically creepy. Evelyn is perhaps the most ordinary among them, a kept woman who feels distant from her daughter and rarely leaves the house, but brags about her formal education – she can speak fluent French despite never having occasion to use it (Je ressens ta douleur, Evie). The flashbacks (in which India and Richard go on an assortment of hunting trips together), seem to suggest a Dexter-like psychopathy shared between the two – a need to be a murderous predator that Richard sought to help her channel into safer avenues than becoming a serial killer. That is also kept pretty vague (since Richard is dead and we barely hear them discuss it), but that’s about as much of an explanation as we ever get for India’s sudden, sympathetic turn toward her creepy uncle, whose greatest service to her up to that point was choking out her would-be rapist Whip Taylor (played, with frustrating charisma, by Alden Ehrenreich) while he was literally on top of her – a scene that she would dramatically relive while washing Whip’s blood off in the shower, first weeping and then masturbating about it.

Still from "Stoker" (2013 film)

The attempted rape feels perfunctory, given that Whip is basically a non-entity prior to this moment (he’s one of several teenage dirtbags she wanders past without speaking to), but it points to Stoker‘s lurid fascination with the loss of virginal innocence. The film is rife with imagery of pure, white clothing becoming dingy or blood-soaked, and the aforementioned shower scene begins with India removing her childlike shoes, which have become stained by her uncle’s actions in the previous scene, even as she’s not quite ready to shrug them off until the end. She glances furtively into the abyss of negative experiences awaiting a girl in this world, and finds the prospect titillating. This could be an interesting – if disturbing – avenue to explore in this film. But…the shower scene is basically it. One chance (among several) for the audience to shallowly ponder that India must’ve had a dark streak prior to this moment: a hint of what’s to come, but also a cheap shock. Stoker also seems to have as little interest in clarifying the family’s vampiric and incestuous creepitude as it does in understanding why Uncle Charlie spent his 20+ years in a mental institution – after murdering his younger brother as a child – writing letters to India from the moment she was born. In his letters, Charlie plays at establishing a familial relationship with this person he’s never met, confabulating globetrotting adventures that are keeping him away from her, and endowing her as his partner in crime, whom he loves dearly. An immature mind might feel flattered. A worldly mind would see that the letters have nothing to do with India herself, so much as the idea that Charlie has built around her. Richard Stoker wisely kept the letters hidden from his daughter – we can only guess what he planned to do with them once she was old enough to comprehend her uncle’s danger and depravity – but this is perhaps what makes their revelation feel so hollow. As India peruses each letter, covered with elegant calligraphy and hand-drawn illustrations, she spends a bare moment lamenting the relationship she might have had with her uncle, then realizes (via an address stamp on the back) that the letters – and that relationship – are pure fiction. The family’s vague sense of danger goes herky-jerky for a moment, but ultimately stays vague.

Why did Charlie kill his brother as a child? Because he’s evil, I guess. Why was he romantically obsessed with a baby, like so much Jacob Black from Twilight? Because he’s evil and hypothetically pervy, I guess. And why does India decide to ditch her spacey mother and join his folie à deux, about two screen-minutes before shooting him dead with a hunting rifle? Maybe he was evil but underestimated how evil she was? Maybe the next generation is always a little bit better? Or maybe her childhood not spent in a psychiatric hospital gave her the opportunity to become a bit better at killing before the moment presented itself. Charlie might not hesitate in that moment, but he kinda peaked early with his murder-by-sandcastle – his remaining murder skills are acts of rudimentary barbarism: smacking people with rocks, and choking them them out with belts, etc. The mere vibe of Stoker is perhaps enough to carry its audience through (we did give it a 7.5/10 on the podcast at the time), but it all just feels a little bit quaint to me now. Its depiction of the surrounding town – which at its best, evokes the kind of teenage layabout antics seen in Stand by Me or Donnie Darko – albeit with a much less important supporting cast – feels perfunctory and standoffish. And while the film’s performance of uncomfortable romantic obsession is mildly interesting, Park has frankly done this better twice since (in both The Handmaiden and Decision to Leave (the latter was my #3 of last year).

Still from "Stoker" (2013 film)

In addition to becoming a parent in the past decade, I’ve perhaps become a bit less comfortable with a film presenting a set of characters as creepy or evil without even pretending to offer a reason why. I don’t need every movie to be an origin story, but I would like some mildly coherent explanation for why people are the way they are, even if it only exists in subtext. Otherwise, we can just slap the “psychological thriller” label on it and not bother to interrogate that designation, because “I dunno, he’s just crazy” is all we can be bothered to come up with. Uncomplicated evil can be interesting to watch, but…this ain’t it for me anymore. What we have instead is India, which the film treats as a sort of tableau – painted with the beliefs, biases, blind spots, and behaviors of her parents and experiences, but also tarred with the brush of original sin. India announces at the outset that in the same way a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. And she is vaguely aware that as an adult, she can make more lasting choices about her fundamental nature. We see her make just such a choice as she waylays and murders her local sheriff – a final loose end in the trail of bodies she and Charlie have left behind. But in the end, Evie’s fuck-you speech is less about anything India is or does, and more about her own disappointment with her life and choices. Just like Charlie’s letters, she’s spinning a yarn that has little to do with its real-life subject. As I look at my own children, the idea of wanting life to rip them apart feels aberrant to me. But the fear of that very thing happening to them feels part and parcel with being a parent in this world – as it is, and always has been. Previous generations may not have had climate change to deal with, but they did have war and plague. And they carried on – at least the ones that survived. Watching this scene again, with intense anger and sadness in Kidman’s eyes, and curious, predatory nihilism in Wasikowska’s, I felt a deep swell of pity for Evie. This speech is not only the most memorable and specific component of Stoker, but it is definitely what makes Kidman’s performance the standout. Goode and Wasikowska acquit themselves well, but I have a much harder time describing what they were actually doing here.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10