Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
Directed by Courtney Solomon
Cast: Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Zoe McLellan, Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch, Bruce Payne, Kristen Wilson, Lee Arenberg, Tom Baker.
2000 108 minutes
Rated: (for violence and mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 10, 2000.
The role-playing game, "Dungeons & Dragons," has had a heavy cult following since the mid-1970s. Although popularity has seemed to have faltered in recent years, it has taken two-and-a-half decades for the game to be adapted into a live-action feature. Not being a close follower of the game, "Dungeons & Dragons," the film, had to stand on its own for me, and it does. Knowing very few particulars of the plot before stepping into the theater auditorium, it was relatively easy to follow and kept me fairly interested for the entirety of its running time (a great feat, indeed, for someone who isn't a fan of sword-and-sorcery stories).
The problem with the movie does not have as much to do with its entertainment value as it does about its clearly restricted budget (reportedly $36-million), which is simply not enough money to do such an epic story justice, as well as its decidedly threadbare screenplay, by writer-director Courtney Solomon. The appearance of dungeons are few and far between, while the only sign of dragons come during the first and last ten minutes of the 108-minute running time. The war of dragons that make up the grand finale are impressive visual effects, indeed, but not overwhelming. They always look like well-done computer-generated graphics, rather than actual living-and-breathing creatures, as do most of the backgrounds. If anything, the effects in "Dungeons & Dragons" are picture-perfect examples of realism and artistry compared to the recent haphazard bomb, "Battlefield Earth."
Set in the mythical empire of Izmer, 17-year-old Empress Savina (Thora Birch) is in the midst of a controversial fight with the dastardly Profion (Jeremy Irons), a powerful magic-user. The Empress wholeheartedly believes that the upper-class Mages and lower-class commoners should finally be treated as equals, while Profion disagrees. In an attempt to capture a powerful rod that controls the kingdom, Profion sends his henchman Damidar (Bruce Payne) out to find it, while bright-eyed commoners Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans), along with Mage Marina (Zoe McLellan), find themselves on the opposing side, appointed to once again bring justice to the land.
"Dungeons & Dragons" is a respectable take on the classic good-versus-evil theme, despite its constant resemblance to a low-rent version of "Star Wars." While a sometimes pleasurable diversion, the writing and aformentioned budget restraints bring the end result down several notches. Since director Solomon (a long-time "D&D" fan) knew that money would be tight, he should have concentrated on making the story and writing original and smart. Alas, his script is ridden with cliches and the dialogue comes off unintentionally silly.
Not helping matters are the mediocre performances given by all. Best of the lot is most likely Justin Whalin (1991's "Child's Play 3"), as Ridley, as he is the center of the movie and equips himself well. He is bland, however, particularly in comparison to Marlon Wayans (2000's "Scary Movie"), as his sidekick Snails, whose wisecracks aren't nearly as annoying as expected. Rounding out the main three players is Zoe McLellan (1997's "Inventing the Abbotts"), who may or may not be a good actress; from the evidence presented here, I would guess the latter. As the head villain, Jeremy Irons (1998's "The Man in the Iron Mask") is outrageously cheesy, overacting and chewing up the scenery to such a degree that everyone acting next to him might as well not even open their mouths--his yelling and evil laughter often drown out the other dialogue. Finally, Thora Birch (1999's "American Beauty") is severely wasted as Empress Savina. To go from such a masterful motion picture as "American Beauty" down to something as inconsequential as "Dungeons & Dragons" (and to not even be particularly that good) is mindboggling. Hopefully, Birch got a servicable paycheck for playing what is basically the poor-man's Queen Amidala character, played by Natalie Portman, from "Star Wars--Episode 1."
With a bigger budget, a stronger screenplay, and generally more accomplished actors, "Dungeons & Dragons" might have been a film worth remembering--the first notable release of its type since the "Conan" movies. Instead, it stands as a near-success with too many holes and problematic sections to be able to recommend. Perhaps the best thing that can honestly be said about "Dungeons & Dragons" is that it could have been much worse. Now how's that for being positive?
©2000 by Dustin Putman