Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine in "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves."

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves  | ★★★★ | In theaters Friday, Mar. 31

Pleasant surprises are the best kind of surprises.

Based on the classic roleplaying game, the new action-comedy Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves may be the sneaky commercial hit of the season. As the latest attempt to kick-start a D&D entertainment franchise, the movie suggests that ambitious, creative minds are in charge and good times are ahead.

Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez headline as Edgin and Holga, a luckless bard and rogue barbarian, respectively. The longtime partners in crime lead a kind of swords-and-sorcery heist crew in a world of classic fantasy tropes and signifiers: thatched-roof cottages, fortified castles, bustling village markets. The rest of the team, assembled Ocean’s Eleven style, includes Regé-Jean Page as a lawful good paladin, Justice Smith as a half-elf (and half-ass) sorcerer, and the scene-stealing Sophia Lillis as an earnest tiefling druid.

If the terms “lawful good paladin” and “tiefling druid” make sense to you, then you’re definitely the target audience for the film’s substrate of crafty gamer-culture references.

The movie works just fine on its own as an adventure story, but there’s a hidden second layer of fun for old-school D&D nerds. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those nerds and I spent a good deal of my precious youth playing D&D with my friends in dim suburban basements. I have no regrets.)

Screenwriters and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein make a smart move by structuring the script as a heist film. The familiar template supplies sturdy narrative traction for the uninitiated. D&D newbies might not know an ogre from an owlbear, but everyone knows the rhythms of the heist film.

The storyline turns on the pursuit of a magical MacGuffin that will help our heroes defeat the villains: Hugh Grant as a weaselly grifter and Daisy Head as an effectively scary necromancer. Fights are fought. Goons are dispatched. Spells are cast and miscast. (Also watch for a very small cameo from a very big movie star.)

Honor Among Thieves is a professional piece of work. It has a half dozen inventive action sequences featuring creative combat choreography and clever escapes. The characterizations are distinctive and funny, the dialogue is mostly on point, and all the secondary characters are given space to shine. Makeup and costuming are superior, too: as the spooky Red Wizard, British actress Head looks like a gothed-out Fiona Apple circa 1998.

Maybe the most surprising part is that the film has real heart in the end. The writers care enough to provide actual character arcs and a third act with emotional payoff. There are some subtle themes bubbling underneath, too, concerning ecological stewardship and the redemptive power of found families. But mostly the movie is just fun and funny, with bonus bits for gamers, e.g., displacer beasts, gelatinous cubes, and the handy old Speak with Dead spell (3rd level necromancy; casting time, one action).

The timing is just right for this thing. D&D is enjoying something of a renaissance lately, as digital burnout prompts a new generation to discover the joys of tabletop games and collaborative storytelling. Plus, many of D&D’s old-guard devotees are now media makers themselves. The Netflix series Stranger Things mines old game lore, and out-and-proud D&D veterans include Stephen Colbert, Aubrey Plaza, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Word is that a TV follow-up series is already in development, so we can expect D&D to take its place among all the other fan-driven franchises out there, Marvel and Tolkien and the Stars, both Wars and Trek. It’s a worthy addition. Honor Among Thieves isn’t a spoof or a condescending attempt to exploit the nerdcore market. The filmmakers know their target audience, but they also clearly like and respect that audience. It makes all the difference.

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com.

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