May 29, 2018
Dungeons & Dragons (2000) (part 1 of 10)
The Cast of Characters:
Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin). The movie’s requisite Chosen One, a bratty thief with a grudge against mages, a mysterious undefined destiny, and an ego the size of Narnia.
Lord Profion (Jeremy Irons). An evil wizard who wants to control dragons so he can take over the kingdom of Izmer. Hammier than a hoo-hah of Al Pacinos.
Empress Savina (Thora Birch). The ruler of Izmer, who wants mages and commoners to have equal rights, Savina blends the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln with the charisma of a log.
Snails (Marlon Wayans). Ridley’s partner-in-crime, a thieving, cowardly, comical black man. For people who wish Jar Jar Binks were more offensive and annoying.
Marina (Zoe McLellan). A low-level mage who stumbles across Profion’s plot to take over the kingdom. Snooty, arrogant, and stuck-up, and the film’s most likable character.
Damodar (Bruce Payne). Profion’s evil henchman. I don’t know what the deal is with his lips either.
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In the far off mists of time, in the ancient age of 1974, E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson made nerd history. Fans of miniatures war gaming, the two created a new kind of fantasy game in which each player controlled a single piece or character, and those characters worked together to make their way through an underground complex full of monsters and treasures. The game was Dungeons & Dragons, published that year by Tactical Studies Rules or TSR (which was later bought out by Wizards of the Coast, but that’s a long and not-that-funny story), and it gave birth to the entire hobby of role-playing games.
The game (along with the hobby) survives to this day, though it clearly peaked in the early-to-mid-’80s, what with a Saturday morning cartoon and a mention in E.T., to say nothing of the annoying yet publicity-generating accusations of Satanism. Today it’s just mostly something that marks you as a total geek, but well, that’s what I am, and that’s pretty much the only reason I or anyone else saw the movie I’m about to recap.
By September of 2000, when Dungeons & Dragons, the movie, was released, Dungeons & Dragons the game was undergoing a bit of a renaissance with the publication of its third edition, which made the rules more coherent and flexible. Sales went up, and the new edition got mentions in the mainstream press as a retro revival story; it was a good year for the game’s publishers, and the release of a movie based on the game should have been a feather in their cap.
Alas, t’was not to be. The rights to make a D&D movie were sold to Sweetpea Productions, an independent company, back in 1990. Because Sweetpea was a small outfit without studio support, many years were spent getting a script that could actually be realized on a low budget. As CGI became cheaper and more common, the project was finally viable, but they still had to cut corners; the first trailers looked a bit like Dragonheart’s test reel.
I remember actually having a faint glimmer of hope for this production—after all, effects don’t matter, it’s all about the story, right?—but neither critics nor audiences were impressed by the results and the film disappeared quickly. When I finally got around to renting it in 2001, I didn’t expect it to be good. That ship had sailed.
But I was at least hoping it would be fun. Your average D&D game isn’t exactly high art, but killing orcs, looting magic swords, and occasionally casting magic missiles at the darkness has a certain unpretentious action movie appeal. The film is short on these visceral pleasures, and tries to sell itself as a serious fantasy epic, one that young, first-time director Courtney Solomon envisioned as a trilogy no less. It’s not good enough to work on that level, though, being basically a 20-year-old’s game fiction written up as a movie script. There are some moments which are cheesy and fun, and it’s not hard to watch overall, but it’s blander and duller than anything calling itself Dungeons & Dragons has any right to be.
So without any further ado, roll 3d6 six times, pick a class, buy your starting gear, and let’s kick in the door.
The New Line logo opens the film, anticipating better days when it would produce good fantasy films. The movie starts, and we’re moving across a blue and cloudy surface, and a dreaded expository voiceover (by Bruce Payne as well) informs us that we are now beginning our descent into the magical kingdom of Izmer. The Mages, or wizards for the layperson, constitute the kingdom’s aristocracy; they rule everything, and the commoners are “little more than slaves”. The Empress Savina wants to grant the people equal rights, but the evil mage Profion, we’re told, “has other intentions.” And that blinding understatement leads us to the title screen and a generic heroic fanfare.
The pleasant but familiar music continues as we descend further onto an elaborate CGI castle sitting on the water. The narration doesn’t tell us yet, but this is Sumdall, presumably the capital of this magocratic society. We do the standard rapid pan familiar to anyone who played Myst, and appropriately enough the computer graphics evoke mid-90s PC games; pretty, but totally fake.
Swooping down at the water level, we pass into the sewers underneath, finding ourselves in, well, a dungeon, full of hooded servants operating some sort of water-wheel pulley system. There’s a skull on one of the water chutes for no reason, and I hope that this isn’t going to haunt me through every recap I do. In any case, it doesn’t say much for the city’s sanitation system.
In the middle of the room is a big magical gyroscope device swirling to and fro. At its center is a golden rod, stuck on with what appears to be rock candy. This device is apparently the work of Lord Profion himself, and we get our first glimpse at our villain, as played by—sigh—Repeat Offender Jeremy Irons. (Interestingly enough, Irons’ other qualifying title is also a derivative and unimaginative fantasy romp, only made six years later.)
Apparently Irons was in this movie because he needed to pay for renovations on some castle he’d purchased. Though I understand an actor’s inherent need to work, and that you can’t always pick and choose what you’re offered even if you’ve won an Academy Award, it occurs to me that maybe he could have had a little more discretion about certain projects if he weren’t buying castles.
But I shouldn’t condemn Irons too much, because in truth he ends up providing most of the movie’s meager entertainment value. It’s obvious that early in the production, he realized that this was not going to be his finest hour no matter what he did, so he chose to indulge himself and turn his usual carefully-measured intensity into full-on scenery chewing. It’s fun to watch him cut loose and forget everything he ever learned about good acting, as we will see shortly.
Profion glowers at the rod (get used to “rod” jokes) and starts casting green magical energy at it while chanting gibberish. Lots of swirly computer effects take place, little gold dragons circle the rod, and at last the gyroscope spins to a halt. Profion gets a downright pornographic look on his face as he carefully handles the now-glowing rod, and snarls in joy at the apparent success of his vague experiment.
By the way, this scene is also the first we see of Profion’s henchman Damodar. I guess the filmmakers felt that the evil servant always needs some weird physical attribute, and they settled on blue lips. (There’s no explaining the costume, though. Sorry.) Profion leads his chilly underling up to a large gate, and instructs his followers to “release him.” The gate is opened to dramatically reveal a large golden dragon, who roars and snarls and sets one of the evil Gregorian monks aflame before being brought to a halt by Damodar and his mighty rod. The CGI isn’t too bad in this scene, but there’s something weird about the dragon’s stubby limbs and gigantic head.
Profion says, “You are mine now, come to me!” even though the dragon’s already closer than you’d want, and the monster struggles and sort of calms down. From Profion and Damodar’s dialogue we gather, and by “gather” I mean “are explicitly told”, that with the rod, the wizard plans to control an army of dragons to “crush the Empress” and apparently stop her plans for emancipation. But the rod turns out to be faulty; the dragon starts getting out of control again, so Profion orders the Rancor monster treatment and magically zaps away the chains keeping the gate up, having it slam into the beast’s neck and kill it.
(Get used to Star Wars echoes too; the film isn’t quite as bad about this as Irons’ other blot on his record, but it’s clearly been made by people who grew up watching Star Wars and weren’t afraid to steal from it at times.)
As the villain and henchman stalk off to examine other schemes, the dragon’s CGI blood spills out into the city water supply, where it almost instantly catches fire. It’s actually a cool moment, just enough to get your hopes up that interesting things are about to happen.
People on the streets gather to watch the fires. Also, it is apparently nighttime all of a sudden. Standing at the front of the crowd are two thieves, our heroes, Ridley and Snails. Well, technically, only Ridley is the Hero, to whom all things will happen and who has all sorts of Special Destiny crap floating about him. Snails is the goofy comic relief, and as such is played by Marlon Wayans.