Dungeons & Dragons

Director: Courtney Solomon
Screenplay:Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright
Stars: Justin Whalin (Ridley), Marlon Wayans (Snails), Thora Birch (Empress Savina), ZoeMcLellan (Marina), Kristen Wilson (Norda), Lee Arenberg (Elwood), Bruce Payne(Damodar), Jeremy Irons (Profion), Richard O'Brien (Nilus)
MPAA Rating:PG-13
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA

Dungeons & Dragons is a dark, ugly fantasy movie that takes its name from therole-playing game that first gained popularity among unpopular teenage boys two decadesago. The game really has little or nothing to do with the movie itself, although there aredungeons and dragons to be found, the former created by large interiors shot in variousbuildings in the Czech Republic and the latter created by cartoonish, largely unconvincingdigital effects.

The screenplay, written by Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, sets the action in themythical realm of Izmer, which is split into two sharply divided classes: mages (those whopossess magic) and commoners (those who do not). Despite all the bombastic action andinane dialogue, it appears that Lilien and Cartwright are actually trying to say somethingabout the necessity of political equality among all people. At least, they stick a bunch ofpainfully obvious liberal-democratic rhetoric in the mouth of Empress Savina (ThoraBirch), the young ruler of Izmer who is under siege by Profion (Jeremy Irons), a member ofthe governmental council who wants to usurp her authority because she is giving in toomuch to "youthful idealism" about equality.

The hero of the story, of course, cannot be a teenage female revolutionary, so instead wefollow the dull adventures of a naive thief named Ridley (Justin Whalin), who teams upwith a sorcerer-in-training named Marina (Zoe McLellan) to beat Profion to a magicalscepter that allows the holder to control the red dragons. This entails a series of predictableaction set pieces, including a beat-the-maze sequence that is torn directly from the openingpassage of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). When Dungeons & Dragonsis ripping off action sequences from other movies, it is almost tolerable as simple-mindedentertainment. It's when first-time director Courtney Solomon starts trying to inject humorand political themes into the story that it weighs down and collapses.

The humor comes in the form of Ridley's partner-in-thievery, Snails, who is played byMarlon Wayans. Wayans can be very funny (see his long stint on TV's In LivingColor), and, in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, he proved tohave serious dramatic range, as well. Here, however, he is stuck in an embarrassing sidekickrole that requires him to run around, squealing like a 12-year-old girl, bumping his head onlow-hanging doorways, and complaining about how Ridley always gets to rescue the girl.It's a demeaning role, to say the least, and there is not a single moment of it that is evenremotely funny.

The clumsy political element to the story might have been more effective if Lilien andCartwright had devised a better means to convey the equality theme other than havingEmpress Savina solemnly declare it at every turn. And, even then, perhaps it would haveworked on some level if Thora Birch had not been so flat and unconvincing in her role.Birch, who was so good as the sullen teenager in American Beauty (1999), soundslike she's reading her lines off cue cards in a bad, on-again-off-again British accent, whichmakes it even more obvious how unnatural her dialogue is.

The other actors do not fare much better. Justin Whalin, who has all the bland, nondescriptattractive appeal of a Backstreet Boy wielding a sword, makes for a serviceable, if utterlyforgettable hero. Jeremy Irons, on the other hand, tries to make up for Whalin's dullness byoveracting in every scene he's in. Maybe it's all those understated roles in which he playedJesuit priests, politicians, and teachers whose torment took place mostly on the inside thatdrove Irons into a role where he could scream and grimace and glower with the utmostoverkill. Whatever the reasons, he is simply terrible. Bruce Payne, who plays Damodar,Profion's mercenary warrior, is the only actor who emerges relatively unscathed. He makesfor a good, menacing villain, although it is a mystery why the make-up department madethe decision to outfit him with metallic blue lipstick.

The filmmakers responsible for Dungeons & Dragons were most likely hopingthat the visual imagery would cover up the obvious screenplay and bad acting. There are afew startling moments of visual grandeur, especially when the camera snakes up huge,imposing castle towers that are impossibly high. But, even here the effect is ruined asSolomon quickly runs it into the ground by repeating these shots over and over again.

Most of the movie is underlit and dank, which serves to minimize the distinctcartoonishness of the many computer-generated digital effects. The big climax, whichinvolves a battle in the sky between two races of dragons, has thrilling moments and isalmost effective, except for when the camera gets in too close, and the sharp edges and lackof depth remind us of high-tech fakery involved. By then, of course, it is far too late tosave Dungeons & Dragons, which has sunk far beneath the reach of redemption,even the shallow redemption of mindless, but enjoyable, entertainment.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (1)

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