“Dungeons & Dragons” is stunningly bad sci-fi/fantasy hokum, unlikely to infuse the sword-and-sorcery genre with the same burst of good fortune that “Gladiator” visited upon the sword-and-sandal movies earlier this year. Pic’s futuristic vision of the world is a dreary renaissance-fair “Star Wars” by way of a “Masters of the Universe” garage sale. Sometimes blessed with the gift of unintentional hilarity, but not nearly often enough, tyro helmer Courtney Solomon’s lowbrow visual-effects extravaganza will quickly follow in the box office path of the similarly themed “Warriors of Virtue” and “Highlander: Endgame.” Simply put, the average episode of “Xena” or “Hercules” offers a more compelling and imaginative photoplay.
Targeted at undiscriminating international auds and genre aficionados, film would probably play better dubbed into a foreign tongue, or with its vacuous dialogue drowned out altogether by the rumble of music and effects (something the filmmakers seem to have figured out, judging from the all-but-inaudible level of the dialogue track throughout most of the film’s action set pieces).
The neo-medieval setting aside, “Dungeons & Dragons,” which was developed by Solomon (allegedly over the course of a decade) from the enormously popular role-playing game, offers a scenario as familiar as Greek mythology and as recent as “The Matrix.” Ridley (Justin Whalin), a naive hero-in-the-making, gradually comes into the knowledge of his superhuman abilities as he quests for a seemingly unattainable object of enormous power — a scepter that can command an army of “red dragons.” The scepter will in turn be used to destroy the intentions of a heinous villain, Profion (Jeremy Irons), who seeks to make himself sole and supreme ruler of the universe.
No slouch among fantasy heroes, Ridley takes off on his journey with a comical sidekick, Snails (Marlon Wayans); a winsome magician, Marina (Zoe McLellan); and a crotchety dwarf (Lee Arenberg) in tow. Only the Rock Eater from “The NeverEnding Story” is missing from the lineup; he’d fit right in.
There’s some introductory, gobbledygook narration explaining the schism, in the kingdom of Izmer, between the royal-blooded Mages and the lowly commoners. But despite the baker’s dozen of garden-variety sideshow characters, there’s no cogency to how the disparate races of humans, elves, sorcerers, et al., function together. Izmer itself ends up as little more than a contrivance upon which the thin scenario hangs. We need to believe that Izmer is a real place where real lives hang in a precarious balance, but instead of fully immersing us in a fantasy universe of their own design, Solomon and screenwriters Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright don’t even get our feet wet.
Pic’s only consistent element is the uniform lack of charisma among the thesps, from what-you-see-is-what-you-get newcomer Whalin to Irons, who seems to hover in a limbo somewhere between constipation and pre-coital arousal. Wayans is left to shuck and jive his way through an embarrassing and objectionable stereotype of a bumbling thief.
Though most of pic evokes a videogame rather than a role-playing one, there are moments that work on a deeper creative level — as when Marina suddenly creates an interdimensional portal out of “magic dust.” And Solomon does manage to stage one relatively rousing bit of adventure, when Ridley navigates his way through a booby-trapped, Rube Goldberg maze at the challenge of a master thief (played by Richard O’Brien with cheer and comic snicker, in easily the film’s best performance). No matter that the entire sequence is cribbed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
But pic is finally, fatally undermined by a basic lack of inspiration and internal logic, and by third-act shifts in tone, from comic lightness one moment to needlessly brutal violence the next, to one of the most far-fetched and awkwardly laughable of recent screen deaths. The physical production, mixing CGI establishing shots, unimpressive interiors and exteriors shot in the Czech Republic, also comes up way short.