Dungeons and Dragons (2000)

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Long-term / unlucky readers may remember us reviewing “The Book Of Vile Darkness”, the third “Dungeons & Dragons” movie. We rather liked it, as it felt like a real group of teenage gamers controlling the characters, sex and money-obsessed psychopaths (as most teenage gamers are), each and every one of them. It was a lot of fun, but completely bombed at whatever the straight-to-video version of the box office is. I assumed that was it for D&D, but a good name will get you a long way, and apparently a big-budget “reboot” is in the offing, starring Ansel Elgort.

Which takes us back to 2000, and the first D&D movie. It predates Lord Of The Rings by a year, so it can hardly be called bandwagon-jumping on that one; and it’s almost universally reviled, with a 10% score on Rotten Tomatoes, a handful of “Worst Movie of the Year” nominations, and a director who completely disowned it. Courtney Solomon (whose other two directorial efforts have been heavily criticised, fyi) said TSR and Wizards Of The Coast – the two rights holders to D&D – interfered constantly, “forced” him to direct, use an old script, etc.

And I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention that all my friends and I, roleplaying fans and long-term players of the game, thought the movie was terrible when we first watched it. The script and jokes were lame, the action confusing, the acting weak. So how kind has the last 16 years been to it? Also, in that review above, I incorrectly said it was Arnold Vosloo, the bald chap from “The Mummy”, in it, even though he wasn’t. Oh, that enough people read my reviews that eagle-eyed readers would notice stuff like that!

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Well, it’s good and bad. Leading things off is Jeremy Irons (yes, really, Jeremy Irons is in this movie) giving it everything he has as Profion, the evil court mage. He’s trying to create a rod, or wand, or some such thing, that will control red dragons, but his man-made system isn’t cutting it, and he needs a special gem. This is illustrated by a scene where he tries to control a dragon, and I thought to myself “that looks like a bloke in a dragon suit, but it’s CGI so there’s no way”. Turns out, it was a bloke in a dragon suit, just motion captured into CGI, and is absolutely terrible. What were they thinking? By the way, the other sort of dragons, gold ones, are controlled by the teenage empress Savina (Thora Birch) with her special rod, which Profion is also trying to get hold of. It sort of makes sense so far, right?

Then everything goes a bit odd, when we’re introduced to the stars of the piece, a couple of thieves called Ridley and Snails. Ridley is Justin Whalin, who you’ll possibly remember as Jimmy Olsen from “The New Adventures Of Superman” in the 1990s (and who quit acting in 2009, it would seem); and Nails is Marlon Wayans, who some people say should’ve never taken acting up in the first place. He was close to the height of his fame at the time, having come off “The Wayans Brothers”, “In Living Colour”, and was in “Requiem For A Dream” and “Scary Movie” the same year – I have a horrible feeling he got to dictate his own part in this, and giving a Wayans brother free rein is rarely a good idea.

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So, the two thieves decide to break into the magician’s guild, and that draws them into the story, as they steal a map which has the location of the gem needed to make a red dragon-controlling wand. Trainee wizard Marina (Zoe McLellan) gets involved with them, and we’re on for fun and adventure as they escape Profion’s clutches and go on the run, chased by Profion’s main goon Damodar (Bruce Payne). They eventually hook with a comic-relief angry dwarf Elwood Gutworthy (Lee Arenberg), but he doesn’t really do anything so you can safely ignore him.

The sets the movie takes place on look weirdly Victorian, despite the castles, clothes, etc. all looking totally medieval. There’s one ruin that a crucial scene takes place in, and all I could think was “wouldn’t that castle still be a working castle back in those days?” It feels like the person doing the set decorating and the person picking out locations had a falling out before filming started and tried to sabotage each others’ work. Best of all, though, is a theatre set that looks an exact spitting image of the theatre from “The Muppet Show”.

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I’ve mentioned Jeremy Irons and his scenery-chewing majesty above, but everyone else is…well, it’s all pretty confusing. The only actor I bought as trying hard with the material was Bruce Payne, who managed to pull off the difficult trick of being menacing while wearing blue lipstick; Arenberg feels like he was a last minute replacement and didn’t bother learning his lines; and McLellan just doesn’t suit the material at all (she’s a fairly successful TV actress these days, so clearly she can do better than this). But Whalin and Wayans are just awful. Wayans doesn’t pretend for one second he’s in a fantasy movie, and Whalin clearly expected this to be his star-making appearance, but is never quite sure if he’s going for “wisecracking hero” or just “hero” (he also makes no pretence he’s in a fantasy setting).

None of them are helped by a miserable script, full of the worst, clunkiest dialogue (the two writers were so traumatised by the experience that neither of them worked again for a decade) and a plot which makes sense on the surface but when you dig down, makes none at all. Take the ending, for instance. Did Marlon Wayans have somewhere to be, or did he upset the director? What about the very final scene? What the hell was going on there? And while we’re doing the incredulous question mark section of the review, cast your eye over the city during the sky-battle scene. How big do you think that city is?

It’s not all terrible, though. Richard O’Brien, doing a weird parody of his show “The Crystal Maze”, is a lot of fun; and Tom Baker as a magic elf is great too. Both old hands who know how stupid it all is and have a bit of fun with it. The final battle is fun (if a little silly) too. It’s not as bad as I remember, honestly, but it’s still not great.

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I understand why it failed so badly – it’s a horrible mishmash of styles, with a rotten script and no-one at the helm. Even though I loved D&D, I never got the sense there was a ton of “lore” to the story, no iconic villains or heroes (although the long-running novel series has a ton of surprisingly good stories to work with, should they ever choose to). But they could still have done better than this!

Rating: thumbs down

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