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Dungeons & Dragons   F

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Courtney Solomon
Writers: Topper Lilien, Carroll Cartwright
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Thora Birch, Zoe McLellan, Bruce Payne, Kristen Wilson, Lee Arenberg, Tom Baker, Richard O'Brien.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Put the dice away before I take them away!"
--Al Gore, Futurama

A small personal aside: I work as a professional game designer in my day job. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons pay my mortgage, put food on my table, and ensure that I can actually make practical use of my English degree. People in my industry, both players and designers, have worked long and hard to dispel some of the unpleasant stereotypes surrounding RPGs. Gamers don't go on psychotic rampages, most of us practice basic hygiene, many of us date, and a substantial portion of us can hold conversations that don't involve our 10th level cleric and the balrog he slew beneath the ruins of Undermountain.

Then a movie like this comes along and renders all of our efforts irrelevant.

Dungeons & Dragons, a misbegotten exercise in abject incompetence, produces all the magic and fun of a slow root canal. It features heroes you despise, dangers you giggle at, and dialogue that beggars belief. Insiders will look at this movie and cringe in horror. Outsiders will watch it and wonder why anyone would waste their time on such tripe. Director Courtney Solomon apparently spent 10 years bringing his vision of the venerable role-playing game to life. His enthusiasm is unquestionable, but he clearly lacks the talent to tell a story like this coherently. Every frame of Dungeons & Dragons reeks of compost. The thrills have been lifted wholesale from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, leaving audiences to ask when George Lucas's lawyers will be in touch. Characters wander in and out with little rhyme or reason. The plot whiplashes between incoherent action scenes and mind-numbing exposition, and while there appears to be some sort of point to it all, only Solomon and perhaps screenwriters Topper Lilien and Carol Cartwright can parse it. The special effects attain a sort of ground-rule competence and some of the costumes are nice, but Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have the first idea what to do with such meager assets. They end up buried beneath the sludge, along with anything else resembling quality.

I've been playing D&D since I was nine, and I'll be damned if I can make heads or tales of this plot. There's an Empress (Thora Birch), who wants to bring democracy to her people. She has a scepter that lets her control gold dragons, which is somehow integral to her rule. There's an evil wizard (Jeremy Irons, a long way from his Oscar speech) who wants to usurp the throne using a scepter that controls red dragons, which will allow him to counter her power. Then there's wacky thieves Ridley and Snails (Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans), who somehow end up snookered into looking for the red dragon scepter. They drag the usual plucky romantic heroine (Zoe McLellan), a superfluous dwarf (Lee Arenberg), and an elf sporting fashions from Joel Schumacher's Batman (Kristen Wilson) through a baffling series of mazes, traps, and bar fights, all the while being closely pursued by the wizard's vicious underling (Bruce Payne, looking fetching in blue lipstick). It ends with a tacked-on climax that owes more to the modest CGI budget than any identifiable sense of drama.

The low caliber of the material serves as a sort of great equalizer, rendering even the most talented cast or crew member as impotent as the lowliest hack. The whole thing feels jumbled and confused, a bunch of scenes that were thrown together and forced to resemble an organic story. While the effects and production design struggle mightily to sell this world, the junior league direction defies them at every turn. The cast seems paralyzed by terrible lines and general ennui. Whalin produces the same sort of intense dislike that your snotty little brother generates when he announces he's telling Mom. Wayons walks a dangerous line between bad and flat-out offensive, and his comic-relief slapstick can send the most good-natured viewer into fits of hate and death. Irons chews his way to a career low point, while Birch -- so terrific in American Beauty -- is forced into the role of dinner theater Princess Leia. Only Richard O'Brien (The Artist Formerly Known As Riff-Raff) emerges intact, making a droll turn as the head of the Thieves' Guild. It's a pity no one else can convey his sense of cheesy fun.

The most frustrating thing about Dungeons & Dragons, however, is the genuine love that Solomon applies to this dreck. It's clear that he adores the material, and that he's gone to a lot of effort to bring it to life. Fans of D&D understand the sense of enjoyment he's trying for. It's the same feeling other people have when they catch a perfect wave, or read a great book, or watch Mark McGuire hit 70 home runs. That unique fulfillment is utterly absent here, buried beneath the pretentious confusion and staggering awfulness. Solomon's complete creative failure even robs the film of any "so bad it's good" campiness; no one likes to laugh at the death of a dream. It's hard to imagine a worse product of love than Dungeons & Dragons, or a worse fantasy film in this or any year.

Please don't tell my mother what I do. She thinks I sell pornography on street corners.

Review published 12.15.2000.

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