Dungeons & Dragons
Screenplay : Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Justin Whalin (Ridley), Marlon Wayans (Snails), Thora Birch (Empress Savina), Zoe McLellan (Marina), Kristen Wilson (Norda), Lee Arenberg (Elwood), Bruce Payne (Damodar), Jeremy Irons (Profion), Richard O'Brien (Nilus)
Dungeons & Dragons is a dark, ugly fantasy movie that takes its name from the role-playing game that first gained popularity among unpopular teenage boys two decades ago. The game really has little or nothing to do with the movie itself, although there are dungeons and dragons to be found, the former created by large interiors shot in various buildings in the Czech Republic and the latter created by cartoonish, largely unconvincing digital effects.
The screenplay, written by Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, sets the action in the mythical realm of Izmer, which is split into two sharply divided classes: mages (those who possess magic) and commoners (those who do not). Despite all the bombastic action and inane dialogue, it appears that Lilien and Cartwright are actually trying to say something about the necessity of political equality among all people. At least, they stick a bunch of painfully obvious liberal-democratic rhetoric in the mouth of Empress Savina (Thora Birch), the young ruler of Izmer who is under siege by Profion (Jeremy Irons), a member of the governmental council who wants to usurp her authority because she is giving in too much to "youthful idealism" about equality.
The hero of the story, of course, cannot be a teenage female revolutionary, so instead we follow the dull adventures of a naive thief named Ridley (Justin Whalin), who teams up with a sorcerer-in-training named Marina (Zoe McLellan) to beat Profion to a magical scepter that allows the holder to control the red dragons. This entails a series of predictable action set pieces, including a beat-the-maze sequence that is torn directly from the opening passage of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). When Dungeons & Dragons is ripping off action sequences from other movies, it is almost tolerable as simple-minded entertainment. It's when first-time director Courtney Solomon starts trying to inject humor and political themes into the story that it weighs down and collapses.
The humor comes in the form of Ridley's partner-in-thievery, Snails, who is played by Marlon Wayans. Wayans can be very funny (see his long stint on TV's In Living Color), and, in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, he proved to have serious dramatic range, as well. Here, however, he is stuck in an embarrassing sidekick role that requires him to run around, squealing like a 12-year-old girl, bumping his head on low-hanging doorways, and complaining about how Ridley always gets to rescue the girl. It's a demeaning role, to say the least, and there is not a single moment of it that is even remotely funny.
The clumsy political element to the story might have been more effective if Lilien and Cartwright had devised a better means to convey the equality theme other than having Empress Savina solemnly declare it at every turn. And, even then, perhaps it would have worked on some level if Thora Birch had not been so flat and unconvincing in her role. Birch, who was so good as the sullen teenager in American Beauty (1999), sounds like she's reading her lines off cue cards in a bad, on-again-off-again British accent, which makes it even more obvious how unnatural her dialogue is.
The other actors do not fare much better. Justin Whalin, who has all the bland, nondescript attractive appeal of a Backstreet Boy wielding a sword, makes for a serviceable, if utterly forgettable hero. Jeremy Irons, on the other hand, tries to make up for Whalin's dullness by overacting in every scene he's in. Maybe it's all those understated roles in which he played Jesuit priests, politicians, and teachers whose torment took place mostly on the inside that drove Irons into a role where he could scream and grimace and glower with the utmost overkill. Whatever the reasons, he is simply terrible. Bruce Payne, who plays Damodar, Profion's mercenary warrior, is the only actor who emerges relatively unscathed. He makes for a good, menacing villain, although it is a mystery why the make-up department made the decision to outfit him with metallic blue lipstick.
The filmmakers responsible for Dungeons & Dragons were most likely hoping that the visual imagery would cover up the obvious screenplay and bad acting. There are a few startling moments of visual grandeur, especially when the camera snakes up huge, imposing castle towers that are impossibly high. But, even here the effect is ruined as Solomon quickly runs it into the ground by repeating these shots over and over again.
Most of the movie is underlit and dank, which serves to minimize the distinct cartoonishness of the many computer-generated digital effects. The big climax, which involves a battle in the sky between two races of dragons, has thrilling moments and is almost effective, except for when the camera gets in too close, and the sharp edges and lack of depth remind us of high-tech fakery involved. By then, of course, it is far too late to save Dungeons & Dragons, which has sunk far beneath the reach of redemption, even the shallow redemption of mindless, but enjoyable, entertainment.
©2000 James Kendrick