Dungeons & Dragons
review by Joe Barlow, 15 December 2000

Courtney Solomonís Dungeons & Dragons is a film that seems like it was specifically designed to annoy its viewers.  Although supposedly based on TSRís phenomenally popular role-playing game, this cinematic adaptation contains almost nothing in the way of dungeon crawls and hack-and-slash -- the very aspects that gamers no doubt expect to see in a movie bearing this name.  Instead, Solomon and his screenwriters allow the story to collapse into dreary political maneuvers and petty bickering.  It bears about as much resemblance to the Dungeons & Dragons game as it does to, say, the movie Willow.

Political wars have become the dominant fad in contemporary sci-fi/fantasy stories (witness Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Babylon Five), and Solomon uses his debut film less as a means to entertain than to preach a dual message of racial tolerance and environmental awareness.  In Dungeons & Dragons, the plot of which exists only in the same vague sort of way that America currently has a president, we learn of a class struggle in the kingdom of Izmer.  The land, which has been segregated since time out of mind into mages (magic users) and commoners (everyone else), is starting to feel the effects of this segregation, with members on both sides arguing for -- and against -- reunification.

But not everyone supports this plan.  The evil overlord Profion (Jeremy Irons) -- who, by the way, is so evil that he keeps a large, pixelized CGI dragon as a pet -- fears that a life of harmony will somehow jeopardize his power (exactly why is never made clear).  As a result, Profion and his henchmen embark on a quest for the Dragonís Eye, a magic scepter that grants its holder power over all the red dragons in the kingdom.  Itís a weapon that practically guarantees invincibility.

A group of adventurers gets wind of the plan, however, and moves to thwart the tyrant.  The lot includes two thieves (Justin Whailin and Marlon Wayans), a young mage (Zoe McLellan), a dwarf fighter (Lee Arenberg), a 234 year-old elf named Norda (Kristen Wilson) and, finally, Nordaís breasts, which receive such attention from the camera that they deserve their own screen credit.  The quest largely consists of the heroes walking around, hunkering down in dark places, and telling each other -- repeatedly -- to watch out for danger.  Probably a quarter of the filmís dialogue consists of variations on such helpful phrases as "Watch out!" and "Be careful, man!"

It might at least have been possible to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons as a dramatization of a mediocre game campaign if only the movie had any sense of cohesion.  Consistently the film drops the ball on the little things, making errors that any player who has given the D&D Playerís Guide even a cursory glance would catch -- the fact that the thieves in this film are allowed to use swords, for instance.  Or the fact that Marina, the groupís mage, spends most of her time fretfully watching her companions during combat -- have the screenwriters forgotten that she possesses magic powers that would be useful during the fight scenes?  Or the fact that the film (hilariously) seems to have no idea whatsoever how portals work; sometimes they close shut immediately after our heroes (or the villain) enter them.  Sometimes they stay open for inexplicably long periods of time, thus allowing our heroes or the villains the chance to catch up with the other (and artificially increase the level of suspense in the process).  Sometimes, when two people enter a portal at the same time, they emerge simultaneously at their destination; sometimes one gets there several minutes ahead of the other.  The lack of rhyme and reason is puzzling, though the visual effect is admittedly impressive.

Even more incomprehensible is the filmís bizarre use of dialogue.  The characters speak a sort-of medieval high-brow ghetto-speak, with "thees," "thous," and "by your leaves" alternating with phrases like "Yo, man, check out that chick."  The biggest offender here is Marlon Wayans, who plays a thief with the unlikely name of Snails.  Wayans seems to have learned subtlety and dramatic nuance from the Chris Tucker School of Acting, where he apparently graduated with honors.  Iím sure his "hip" language was intended as comic relief (from what?), but it only makes an already bad film even worse.  Itís hard to take a story for racial tolerance very seriously when one of the characters is a live-action Jar Jar Binks, mugging to the camera in every scene while the rest of the cast is mired in stiff medieval-speak.

I really wanted to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons, but such an act was quite simply beyond my ability.  Thereís not an original moment contained in the movie, and the familiar scenes that are here arenít particularly well done (indeed, the few scenes of dungeon crawling that made their way into the final cut are so obviously ripped off from the Indiana Jones trilogy that I almost expected someone to say, "Short Round, get my stuff!").  This, along with the atrocious acting, a laughable screenplay (which contains nary a sentence that it isnít an impossibly stale clichť), and a blatant disregard for the rules of the very game upon which the film claims to be based, made me angrier than a Beholder with an eye infection.  The temptation to leave midway through the screening was almost unbearable; fortunately, I made my "Repugnant Piece of Cinematic Garbage" saving role, which allowed me to stay for the duration -- but just barely.  Thank goodness I had that +3 bonus in Bad Movie Constitution.

Twenty-eight year-old producer/director Solomon reportedly lobbied the game manufacturer for eight years to get permission to make this film.  Dungeons & Dragons was his dream project, the goal towards which he dedicated his life, and he deserves congratulations for getting the movie made.  Itís just too bad that all his hard work resulted in something that stinks like an orcís litterbox.

Directed by:
Courtney Solomon

Jeremy Irons
Thora Birch
Justin Whailin
Marlon Wayans
Zoe McLellan
Richard OíBrien
Lee Arenberg
Kristen Wilson

Written by:
Topper Lilien
Carroll Cartwright








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