“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” opens with unlikely prisoners Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) pleading with the Absolution Council for their freedom. Edgin, charming and clever, assumes a showman’s stance, and the wry glint in his eye suggests perhaps something else is brewing. “I should start by giving you some context,” he grins, and for the next seven or so minutes, the film hurdles through a flashback so stock and slapdash in execution it seems motivated by something only marginally less ulterior than stalling.
“Dungeons & Dragons,” based on the tabletop role-playing game, concerns itself with storytelling, specifically worldbuilding. The source material teems with narrative and adventure potential, but the film flounders from an absence of cohesion. There are, arguably, too many cooks in the kitchen: Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley co-wrote the screenplay alongside Michael Gilio, which is based on a story by himself and Chris McKay — a lot of voices to file and sculpt into one compelling story.
On some level, the plot itself sprawls so far as to invite polyphony. Audiences meet the enigmatic protagonists in media res: The opening flashback reveals Edgin was a bard, a spy and a family man. He defeated evil Red Wizards until enemy assassins murdered his wife, leaving him alone to parent his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman); soon the pair meet Holga, gruff and exiled from her hometown, and they band together as a make-shift family until a botched heist lands Edgin and Holga in prison.
That’s all past. The action of the film tracks Edgin as he assembles a ragtag group of misfits with Holga, including Simon the sorcerer (Justice Smith) and Doric the druid (Sophia Lillis), to retrieve a lost resurrection tablet. Meanwhile, Kira lives under the care of Edgin’s old friend and Neverwinter’s new sovereign Forge Fitzwilliam, played by a manic Hugh Grant.
Even before showcasing the extensive ensemble, “Dungeons & Dragons” already invites an episodic feel because it ensnares itself in a temporal tug of war. The flashback exposition, albeit brusque and incessant, reveals personal histories colored by rich relationships and dynamic adventures. But watching Edgin and his crew try to rescue their MacGuffin, it is possible to wonder whether the things that have already happened are more interesting than what’s happening on screen.
From its first few minutes, it becomes clear that the film is founded on memory. The way characters interact with each other suggests, without doing much else, that there is more to society than Edgin experiences — and, at the same time, more to Edgin than what the film encapsulates. The strategy baits a franchise to flesh out the world, but in the first installment, it flares like a vice. Indulging the intrigue of the past transforms something meant to be an expansive foundation into a tiresome distraction that warps the main action. Edgin, along with Holga and Simon, becomes dwarfed by his storied history rather than edified by it.
However, softening the blow of baffling content is delightful form on the part of Pine. As the leading man, he effuses confidence with natural ease. The jokes run thin, but for the most part, Pine’s charm immunizes his delivery. Pine brings a paternal maturity to the character that keeps the film on track. Yet, he also frolics, sings and plays the lyre, and Pine demonstrates a keen ability to create chemistry amid a band of actors who give him scant to work with.
Holga spends most of the movie sulking, seething and, fortunately, silent. She stands opposite Edgin as his stony-faced straight man. But instead of ratcheting up laughter, her deadpan delivery tends to impale jokes on impact. The other members of Edgin and Holga’s rescue party lack definition, making them inoffensive and their lore wholly forgettable. Despite running over two hours, “Dungeons & Dragons” metabolizes like fast food, made by people who did their homework but lapsed on making a movie.