Movies for Gamers Who Like Movies: Dungeons & Dragons – the Movie


Title: Dungeons & Dragons

Directed by: Courtenay Solomon

Genre: Sword & Sorcery

There are some movies that have to be reviewed for this series:  Lord of the Rings (3 separate reviews?), The Sword & The Sorcerer (review coming soon!), Mazes & Monsters, and The 13th Warrior.  But I couldn’t fail to review a movie that actually dared to call itself “Dungeons & Dragons.”  The tie-in is just too obvious.

If you’re like me – and if you’re reading this there’s like a 75% chance you ARE me – then when you heard about a D&D movie coming out you probably wondered which property of TSR would provide the setting.  Would it be a movie set in the World of GreyhawkBlackmoor, or the Forgotten Realms?  Would it have the characters from the Dragonlance series?  Or feature the grim dark-elf Drizzt Do’Urden?  Or would they be doing a live-action version of the eponymous cartoon series?

Of course the answer to that question was the first sign of trouble for this film.  It is set in an entirely new setting and features none of the existing characters from the game’s many incarnations and properties.  This was a strange choice since it seems to automatically limit the “built-in” audience for the film.  But if you want to read about the meta-story – the history of the movie, go elsewhere.  This is a review of the film “as it is” and not as it “could have been.”


In a kingdom where mages form the aristocracy, a pair of thieves, a wizard’s apprentice and a dwarf become embroiled in a plot by a particularly powerful evil mage to overthrow the kind and good mage-princess through the use of a powerful magic item.

Two thieves (Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans) plot to steal from the rich and give to themselves.

OVERVIEW (In a better film, you might call this section “SPOILERS”):

An evil wizard named Profion (Jeremy Irons) is trying to usurp power from the current ruler, Empress Savina (Thora Birch).  She is good and kind, and holds her power through the use of a magic rod which allows her to summon and control a vast squadron of Gold Dragons.  Profion seeks to dethrone her, and she engages her personal tracker Norda (Kristen Wilson) to find the legendary rod which can control the (even more powerful) Red Dragons.  [see Gaming Relevance below]

The bad guys strike a pose.  It is probably better if you don’t ask.

Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans) are two thieves, who through a series of misadventures meet and form a partnership with a beautiful mage apprentice Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan) and a burly (and really tall) dwarf Elwood Gutworthy (Lee Arenberg).

Two thieves, a dwarf and a wizard’s apprentice walk into a tavern…

Eventually this “party” of adventurers (Theives, Wizard’s Apprentice, Dwarf and Elf)… you know, it actually makes me tired trying to explain this.  Let me just bullet some highlights:

  • A dangerous maze holds a fabulous treasure
  • A dungeon has to be navigated to get the magic rod
  • A beholder floats around (which is pretty cool)
  • A bunch of sword fights happen
  • A big dragon fight happens over the city

I think some other stuff happens too – but the important thing is that the bad guy (Profion) sends his top lieutenant after the rod too.  This guy – Damodar (Bruce Payne) is one of the queerest looking villains I’ve seen.  And if his menacing growls, hissing voice and powerful presence weren’t enough – he also wears blue lipstick and has a monster that comes out of his ears!

There is a big dragon fight at the end of the movie.  If you’ve ever played Wing Commander – no, scratch that.  If you’ve ever WATCHED anyone play Wing Commander and could get them to do a side-window view so you could watch the fight outside without having to experience any of the thrill of the 1st Person POV – then you might have some inkling of the excitement you’ll get in this epic battle.

I think this could have been a wonderful Pern movie with just a little work.

The MST3K Factor:

Never tried it.  Never could get a group of friends auto-sadistic enough to sit down with me and watch it.  I would like to observe that the DVD version has commentary from Whalin and the director.  And let me be blunt (pun intended).  I’ve never heard two people sound so stoned without them being actually stoned.  It would be wrong of me to suggest that this movie would be improved if you watched it while you were stoned, but it seems self-evident that Whalin and Solomon liked it more in whatever chemical state they were in while making the commentary.

The Action Factor:

You know how action-packed a session of D&D can be, right?  No, not the imaginary battles in the game – but the actual session with you and your friends sitting around eating pizza & drinking Mountain Dew?  Imagine all that action, only have a gay blue-lipstick wearing bald guy come over to the table and hiss at you at random intervals.  Got that picture in your head?  Great!  Now you know what this film is like in the action department.

Darth Vader and Luke fight on the… no, that can’t be right.  I wish I was reviewing Willow right now.

Casting Couch:

Director Courtney Solomon:  I get the impression that Courtney treats this film like Ned Beatty’s character from Deliverance treats memories of his last mountain-river rafting expedition.   To be fair it was Courtney’s first film – similarly, one might gather that it was Beatty’s character’s first rural anal-rape.

Justin Whalin: Justin brings an earnestness to his role, and is competent in his enthusiasm.  He’s like that one guy at your RPG table who is able to stay in character and brings a lot of fun through his character rather than through OOC stories and jokes.

Marlin Wayans: I liked him in Scary Movie.  I even liked him in Ladykillers.  But here he plays the same role as Tracey Walter in Conan the Destroyer.  In other words, he brings a tonal dissonance to the serious performances by the other characters, without it being endearing or fun.  Although I did like what happened to his character, though even that is marred somewhat by the finale.

Zoe McLellan: Here’s a fantasy element.  How about a woman from medieval society with perfect skin.  Zoe is cute, and a competent actor.  I hope she fares better in the future.

Bruce Payne: He is menacing – but I’m betting he could have told the makeup folks to take that blue lipstick and shove-it.  He should have.  But if I ever get to make my own Sword & Sorcery flick, I’m confident he would be an excellent addition to the cast.

Jeremy Irons:  Irons bring so much subtlety to the role of Profion that it is difficult to watch him without shedding a tear.  Am I kidding?  Yes and no.  Irons sets some kind of standard to the phrase “chewing up the scenery.”  I’m just going to come out and say it.  I think he over-acted this role.  Imagine Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, now turn the transsexual knob back to zero, but turn the acting knob to eleven.  (I know it only goes to ten normally, but Iron’s bloody well goes to eleven.)  Here’s your drinking game: Have a tablespoon of cooking sherry every time Irons scowls.  (Before you attempt this stunt, make sure you have paramedics standing by because you will probably get alcohol poisoning.)

Jeremy Irons providing one of the many subdued moments where just an expression speaks volumes.

Lee Arenburg:  He did a fine job too.  They just didn’t have the budget to make him small.  He played the archetypal dwarf – but it isn’t his fault that the script didn’t provide any background on dwarven culture other than that they eat food and don’t care for horses.  Fortunately for Lee, he’s managed to get into these Pirates of the Caribbean movies (which may be the finest movies based on a theme-park ride ever made.)

Historical Importance:

It is possible that given time people will think of this nostalgically as the famous Courtney Solomon’s first film outing.  Alternatively, it is possible that the film’s historical signifigance is to provide stark contrast to its contemporary fantasy film, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.  Released almost exactly one year after D&D, LOTR – even though it was longer and split into three films, somehow managed to be more popular.  Weird.

Oh, the money-shot!  The money-shot is in the beholder!  (It is moving, which is why it is blurry.)

Gaming Relevance:

This film has one principal lesson for gamers:  It is frequently more fun to play role-playing games than to watch movies.

On a more philosophical note, the plot of this film revolves around powerful characters manipulating dragons to control the populace.  Dragons, in D&D, are intelligent beings – sentient and wise.  But here they are subjugated by the technology of the ruling class and turned into horrific death-wielding machines of mindless destruction.  Is it possible that the film, which was written a decade before in 1990, was actually a metaphor for the struggle between communism and capitalism and how the governments of the nuclear powers were using all their citizens as pawns in a war which none of the little people really had any control?  No.  It isn’t.

Lessons Learned:

  • Tom Baker makes a competent elf, but I would have preferred him as Elminster.
  • I wish they had made a live action version of the cartoon with Wallace Shawn as the Dungeon-Master.
  • My friends – the ones who won’t watch this movie – may be smarter than me.


This film could have been a lot better, and I wish it was.  It is obvious that individual efforts were sound, but the whole thing just didn’t come together properly.  I will make one SPOILER comment here.  In the scene below Damodar is thrown off a thousand-foot tall tower and shown to splat below.  Yet somehow he shows up in the sequel to this film as the same character.   And in the sequel he is described as being an evil wizard – but he’s clearly a fighter in this film.  Did he multi-class after he died?  I don’t remember that being in the SRD.


Negatives about D&D – The Movie:

  • The tone was wrong and discordant.
  • The target audience for D&D is all grown up now – but this film wasn’t.
  • The fighting was weak.  My neighbor’s five year old kids do better light-saber fights, and at least I worry they’ll get hurt.
  • Jeremy Irons needs to settle down a bit.

Positives about D&D – The Movie:

  • Reminds you that playing is better than going to the movies sometimes.
  • Some of the scenes are fun.
  • I liked the beholder.
  • I think most of the people involved have gotten more work.  And Jeremy Irons is apparently not scared off of Dragons, and will be in the upcoming Eragon film.

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