a critiQal film review Dungeons & Dragons (2000)

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Plot: The Empire of Izmer has long been a divided land. The Mages - an elite group of magic users - rule whilst the lowly commoners are powerless. Izmer's young Empress, Savina (Birch), wants equality and prosperity for all, but the evil Mage Profion (Irons) is plotting to depose her, and establish his own rule. In order to prevent Profion from taking over her kingdom, the Empress must find the legendary Rod of Savrille that controls the powerful Red Dragons. Enter two thieves, Ridley (Whalin) and Snails (Wayans), who unwittingly become instrumental in the search for the Rod.

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While I was trying to decide on what movie to watch, I heard a rumor that Hollywood was thinking about creating another remake, this time of a movie I’d never seen: Dungeons & Dragons. Although I’d heard of the game (who hasn’t), I’d completely forgotten about the 2000 film. With a remake due in the next few years, I figured I’d better give the original a shot.

So, does Dungeons & Dragons do a solid translation of the game? Or is Hollywood right, and something is missing, and a remake is desperately needed?

The cast in Dungeons & Dragons is an odd collection of folks. Jeremy Irons is easily the biggest star, and he’s obviously still riding the villain spree he kicked off so well in The Lion King (1994). After his disappointing bad guy in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and his decent turn as a good guy in The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), viewers might have thought he was done with playing the villain for a while. Unfortunately, Dungeons & Dragons proves that idea to be false.

Sadly, there’s no redeeming Jeremy in this film. While the script and directing are bad, his character – who spends most of the movie berating an obviously out-of-her-depth Thora Birch (who plays the Empress) – is just plain all around bad. His scenes with her seem nothing more than him verbally abusing a kid, and who really wants to see that? As for the rest, gone are the theater-styled emotions of Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), replaced instead by a hammed-up version of Jeremy that’s hard to forget, for all the wrong reasons. He’s like a bad impression of a Disney villain, only he out-hams even the most absurd of them, and seems to be relishing the absurdity of it all. It’s such a bizarrely bad performance, it’s sure to haunt him the rest of his days.

Bruce Payne is in Dungeons & Dragons too, playing the villain the heroes encounter most throughout the pic. While he was decent enough in Passenger 57 (1992), his role here is so bogged down by the silly directing and bad effects it’s almost hard to watch. He seems to know this, and while he amps up his villainy to try to keep up, he seems to do so with a dead look in his eyes, as though he knows it’s a hopeless cause.

When Jeremy Irons isn’t verbally beating down Thora Birch, the attention of the film shifts focus to a motley band of actors, and viewers pin their hopes on this crew to raise the level of the film. Unfortunately, the lead in this case is Justin Whalin, who viewers (at the time at least) will have remembered as Jimmy Olsen on “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (TV). While he can strike the hero pose decently enough, his acting just doesn’t have enough chops to get him through this flick. He’s backed up by Marlon Wayans, back when Marlon was still doing lame comedy shtick (oh wait…that hasn’t changed). Surprisingly, even though Wayans plays a character who is so subservient to Whalin’s Ridley is hard not to cringe at it, he’s actually the best part of the film. And since viewers have known him hit his high points later on in idiotic films like Scary Movie and White Chicks, that isn’t saying much at all.

Kristen Wilson (who plays the elf scout Norda) and Zoe McLellan (the Mage apprentice Marina) give decent performances, but with such a bad film around them, their careers still took a long time to recover: Wilson’s career highlight is playing Eddie Murphy’s daughter in Doctor Dolittle (and getting her own movie with Dr. Dolittle 2), while McLellan struggled before finally settling down in a lead role in “NCIS: New Orleans” (TV). It’s too bad, as they both showcased a bit more talent in this film.

Dungeons & Dragons, at first, seems to have a plot that can hold things together: a quest to find a magic scepter to control the Red Dragons, saving the Empress and creating equality for all. It seems a typical fantasy-themed storyline, with the bit about equality thrown in to seem more politically correct. Sounds like a great set-up to showcase how this merry band of adventurers manages to make it through several different trials and tribulations to emerge victorious, right? I mean, something very similar worked for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), didn’t it?

Unfortunately, reluctant director Courtney Solomon (who was forced to take the reins after the studio vetoed all other director recommendations) doesn’t quite have the know-how of, say, Peter Jackson. What should be a fun adventure quickly falls into chaos, with scene after scene not meshing at all with it’s predecessor, and gaping holes of knowledge the viewer is pretty lost without. It all becomes rather forgettable, and seems just an exercise to bring together an audience to ooh and ahh over the different special effects.

And, sadly, that’s the biggest letdown of Dungeons & Dragons. While special effects have improved greatly since this movie’s release, Jurassic Park (1993) (released 7 years before this film) already showcased where special effects already were at the time – and that makes this film look more like a bad Sy-Fy Channel pic than anything else. With poorly-created CGI dragons dragging this film down, the viewer looks at the last thing that could make this movie interesting, and watches it disappear in yet another explosion of shame.

With Thora Birch unable to match up to Jeremy Irons (even in his worst performance ever), Justin Whalin unable to provide the acting chops to win over viewers, characters that are dull at best (and downright cringe-worthy at their worst moments), and special effects that are more suited for a bad TV movie, this loose adaptation of the game won’t win over any fans, either game-heads or not. Because, even though it’s got a lot of bad aspects, the worst is that it’s just plain boring. This fantasy-world adventure should, despite all it’s flaws, at least be entertaining…and it just isn’t. And thanks to decent performances from Marlon, Kristen and Zoe, it can’t even cross that weird threshold to so bad it’s good.

No wonder they want to remake Dungeons & Dragons. After all, they really would have to try hard to make the new film even as bad as the original. Here’s hoping they manage to do a much better job when the remake heads our way. In the meantime, if you want to watch dragons, stick with Reign of Fire (2002) or “Game of Thrones” (TV).

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