Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Cinema File #4: "Dungeons And Dragons Three: The Book Of Vile Darkness" Review.

Trying to decide which Dungeons and Dragons movie is the best is like being raped in the mouth three times in a row, and then being asked to rate each dick.

That was the not really clever and needlessly vulgar introductory sentence I had written for my review of today's film before I had even started watching it, because I was so sure that my initial assumptions about the movie would be proven correct. Suprisingly...amazingly...gobsmackingly, they weren't. Dungeons and Dragons (motherfucking) Three: The Book of Vile Darkness is...a good movie. It is a movie that I enjoyed almost completely from beginning to end. Keep in mind, after Hotel Transylvania, this is now the second movie that I've expected to hate and in fact thoroughly enjoyed, so it's very possible that I am just going insane. I think I might have to watch The Garbage Pail Kids Movie again just to make sure my ability to tell the difference between good movies and bad movies isn't on the fritz. So, I might just walk all this back in a few days, but until then, I'm coming down on the side of pleasantly surprised.

First a caveat, while I am an avid fan of table top roleplaying games, my experience with and passion for the actual game upon which this movie is based is very slight. When I roleplay, I go for Call of Cthulu, Dead Lands, anything Cyberpunk, and occasionally classic World of Darkness. I am at best a casual fan of actual Dungeons and Dragons. I bring this up just to warn you that when it comes to the "story" of the game, the established universe and how various aspects of it came about, I'm not the person to come to for this. For instance, I know that the Book of Vile Darkness is an actual thing, but I really have no idea if the depiction of it in this film is accurate at all (and I would guess that it is probably not). When I did play, I would always ignore all that stuff and use the game mechanics to build my own world with its own original elements, and I never cared what any of the books said. So, I can only imagine that for the purists out there (i.e. my friend and occasional podcast co-host Drew Brigner), there are probably going to be many things in this movie that they will hate, which will just fly over my head. Prepare yourselves, or better yet, don't. Forget all the bullshit and just enjoy the ride, like I did.

The movie starts with a long monologue over the credits about the history of the titular book and the sacred order of knights sworn to find and destory it. And when I say this monologue is long, I fucking mean it. It's effective up to a point, and then it just goes on forever almost to the point of parody. Then, when we're finally done, we get our first glimpse of our protagonist as he is inducted into the knighthood. His order is quickly slain and his father captured, creating the impetus for his adventure, where he must join a band of ruthless killers, posing as one of them, to rescue his dad. Along the way he is forced to make more and more compromises, becoming a much darker person than he ever thought he could be, even as his influence on the group seems to have the opposite effect at least for some of them. I don't want to give too much away, because I really, really want you to see this movie and see for yourself what a good Dungeons and Dragons movie is actually like.

I'm not saying that this is the equal to say, Argo, in terms of cinematic mastery, but compared to what it could have been, what it by all rights should have been, and what I know you think it is, this is the goddamned Citizen Kane of Dungeons and Dragons movies. The set up alone, following a group of charismatic moral reprobates as they rape and pillage their way to delivering the last key to a master villain's evil plot, is so novel, if not for movies generally, at least for straight to DVD fare like this that ordinarily tends to shy away from such complexity. Most importantly, the movie remembers the cardinal rule of fantasy stories that so many failed movies forget - Always Play It Straight. Unlike the first movie in this franchise and too many others to name, everyone in this movie takes it seriously and tries their damnedest to maintain the credibility of the fantasy world being presented. It sounds like such a simple concept but it is apparently so easy a thing to botch that this entire genre, save the Tolkien based projects, is pretty much consigned to schlock almost automatically. This movie could have and should have been given a bigger budget and released theatrically, which is probably the best compliment I can pay to a straight to DVD release.

With the possible exception of two minor characters in the beginning, the hooker with the heart of gold and the sniveling shop keeper, I can't think of a bad character in the bunch. Our hero at first worried me as his youth made me think they were going to Twilight this up a notch, but by the time he meets up with his would be band of misfits, I was sold on his struggle to preserve his oaths amid sinister compatriots easily. And the group he joins, each an interesting twist on a stock bad guy fantasy character, work so well both individually and together, that as they each met their fates one by one, I was almost always sad to see them go so soon. The assassin's constant verbose odes to the sublime nature of murder can get a bit silly, but he gets enough bad ass moments, and the pay off of his merciless philosophy is so good, that it's worth it. The bug vomiting warlock who always knows more than he's saying is just fucking delightful in every scene he's in, and even the lumbering mook gets multiple moments to shine as he fucks his way through a bordello in what I can only assume given his appearance was a deliberate nod to the God of War videogame series. The leader of the group, a sorceress from a clan with a vicious reputation, serves as the counterpoint to the hero's descent into darkness, gradually realizing that she isn't as bad a person as she always thought she had to be. All of them are given their moments to shine and milk them for all they are worth.

I have two major criticisms, but while they pertain to large sections of the structure of the movie, neither is so massive as to come close to ruining it for me. The first is the romantic subplot. which is a common problem I have with movies, where a proud, bad ass female character comes off as diminished when they transfer from independent character to love interest. Mostly its just an issue of forcing a character to act in a way they almost certainly wouldn't just to fit into this mold the writer thinks the narrative needs to fit into. To the film's credit, this romantic subplot is not resolved in the way you would expect, though only because of my next problem, namely, the lack of any resolution whatsoever. I mentioned that I enjoyed this movie from beginning to end, but that isn't exactly true, as in a very real sense, there isn't a beginning or an ending. After the main character is given his reason to go on his adventure, before he finds the group, the movie feels like its almost on autopilot. And the end is so abrupt that it literally shocked me given how much I was enjoying the movie up until then. No plot points go unresolved, but it's basically "Adventure's Over, Good Guys Go Their Separate Ways, The End." There's no time to breathe or get any thematic closure. It's really jarring, and is done in such a way that I have to think it was not intended to be so rushed, like maybe there was something going on behind the scenes with the productions that stopped them from filming the ending they wanted.

And yet, at least in terms of my own memories of D&D campaigns, it kind of works. I know this is a bullshit defense after the fact, but think about it. Are most campaigns known for their epic prologues and epilogues? Depending on the skill of the DM, the inbetween stuff might be really exciting and dramatic, but at least in my experience, they almost always started out with your basic, "Here's a town, stop at the weapons shop, go on a quest" beginning, and the end was rarely anything more than, "congratulations, bad guy's dead, the end." And that's what the movie is, for better or worse. And even with the cinematically lackluster bookends, the ride in the middle is one I cannot recommend enough. Forget everything you think you know about this movie based on the title and the franchise's history. Watch it, judge for yourself. You might just find something worth while. I never saw the second Dungeons and Dragons movie, precisely because I did see the first Dungeons and Dragons movie, so technically I can't fairly say that this is the best Dungeons and Dragons movie, but it's a damn good one.
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