The tabletop role playing game Dungeons & Dragons is a beloved favorite and has enjoyed anything from fair to robust popularity in the forty-plus years since it debuted. This long-anticipated film of 2000 does the community no favors, having inspired sweeping condemnation from critics and audiences alike. Time has not improved the film in eighteen subsequent years.
I don’t play the game, but many of my friends and family do. Thus, as the film opened I turned to my husband and asked him to explain to me what a mage was “in three words or less” – and he said, laconically: “a wizard”. Fair enough.
So, evil mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) has secret plans that involve harnessing the powers of unconvincing CGI dragons and mystical (but cheap-looking) scepters. The scepters, of course, have magical powers – because everything has magic powers in this realm unless it would somehow come in handy to prevent or correct the demise of a beloved character. But, I digress.
So Profion has a magical hold on blue-lipstick’d mage Damodar (Bruce Payne) and employs this VERY ham-fisted baldie in his evil bidding by night; meanwhile, in the daytime, working political schemes against Empress Savina (Thora Birch). Two lowly thieves, Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans), use this political upheaval as an opportunity to better their personal coffers. These two antiheroes soon run afoul of mage Marina (Zoe McLellan), who is promptly shuttled into the “uptight/Princessy” role; she and Freeborn bicker in what the film obviously thinks is spicy romantic tension (it’s not). As the three whimsical young people run afoul of the plot of Profion and Damodar (the pair sound like erectile dysfunction medications – or is that just me?), they eventually enlist the help of elven (I assume) tracker Norda (Kristen Wilson) and dwarf stereotype and possible end-stage alcoholic Elwood (Lee Arenberg). Richard O’Brien Xilus and Tom Baker put in cameos.
The entire film is based off the Wizards of the Coast D&D property, but that doesn’t prevent the project from ripping off big hits like Star Wars (originals and prequels), Indiana Jones, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Neverending Story – to name a few. Ridley is neither charismatic or as appealing as the film thinks he is, and Wayan’s character, while cute, is an obnoxious racial throwback who shrieks much more than you can possibly imagine in the course of the film. Special effects probably didn’t look that good even back in 2000, and there are some laughable and inexpensive-looking costumes (the elven tracker’s breast armor is particularly embarrassing).
But of all the elements of the film it is the over-the-top turns by Irons and Payne that are the real treasure. Irons hoarsely screams and waves his arms about as we might expect, but it is really the be-codpieced Payne who steals the show. He stalks across the screen – taking his time about it – and hisses what I assume are supposed to be menacing whispers but really are just difficult-to-hear, and very slowwwwwwly-delivered, sullen mumbletudes. It’s like he was aiming for a Billy Zane performance (and I mean, more power to him) but lacked the charisma to pull it off. Not even close. Despite a performance that would be a bit much for a children’s play, Payne is somehow one of the more compelling characters in the film and I’m not that surprised he was brought along for the direct-to-DVD sequel.
Absolutely a must-see for any sword-and-sorcery completist, an elite club of which I am an enthusiastic member.