Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Random Movie Report #95: Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God
A long time ago, there was a movie version of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was pretty terrible. As I wrote at length for the Agony Booth back when they still did text recaps, it was a dull, unimaginative quest through clunky exposition with the only reward being watching Jeremy Irons devour every last scrap of the set. Somehow it did well enough to merit a direct-to-video sequel, and astonishingly, not only is it not terrible, not only is it actually kind of fun and in keeping with the spirit of the game, but it's actually good. Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God doesn't try to be much more than a cheesy sword & sorcery picture, the sort of thing that Syfy airs regularly, but it tries hard within that framework. With only a tenuous connection to its predecessor it manages to do just about everything better.
The hero of the film is Berek (Mark Dymond), a former adventurer who discovers that an ancient dragon god is slumbering beneath a local mountain, waiting to be released. Doing some research, his magic-user wife Melora (Clemency Burton-Hill) discovers that an undead villain named Damodar (Bruce Payne, returning from the original) has located a magic orb which can be used to release the dragon- and that he intends to do so, in hopes that he can rule over what's left of the world when his scaly partner is done with it. Melora is struck ill by her divinations, and Berek gathers a band of adventurers- a barbarian (Ellie Chidzley), a thief (Tim Stern), a cleric (Steven Elder), and an elven wizard (Lucy Gaskell)- to travel to an ancient ruin and track down Damodar before he can unleash evil on the kingdom.
All of this is really just a prelude for the action, and rushed through efficiently as a result. If a few details get lost in the process, it's not a big deal because it's easy to follow the "bad guy wants to do bad thing, heroes must stop him" thread. This is, on balance, a good thing; unlike its predecessor, the picture delivers what it promises, packing plenty of action and incident into its running time. The key to low-budget filmmaking is the efficient use of resources, and while you can see the corners that have been cut now and again, they manage a few impressive CGI monsters and good-enough-for-cable production values.
A real effort to be true to the game has been made here, which is impressive considering that Dungeons & Dragons doesn't even have a fixed setting or characters (the makers of the Monopoly movie would be wise to take note). We have your standard adventuring party, not defined much beyond their class stereotypes but likable nonetheless, lairs and tombs filled with traps and treasure, a few familiar monsters, and even a plot point hinging on the differences between "arcane" and "divine" magic. Fortunately the emphasis is not on the grognardy details but on the general "band of heroes in a dangerous land" territory that should be familiar to anyone- sure, the nerds will get the most satisfaction from it, but it's not exactly impenetrable.
Despite all the in-jokes and a generally unpretentious tone, Wrath of the Dragon God does manage a genuine sense of danger and drama. One of the party is killed about midway through, making it look like all of them are at risk, and the dungeoneering is played parallel to Melora and the mage council's attempts to get in touch with the elder gods who imprisoned the dragon in the first place; we're constantly reminded of her encroaching curse, which threatens to turn her into an undead abomination like Damodar. She's a nice character, well-played, and it's not clear if she's going to make it.
So against all odds, despite specifically not aiming much higher than B-movie fare, Wrath of the Dragon God genuinely works. It captures some of the hack-and-slash feel of the tabletop game without getting bogged down in geek minutiae, and it has just enough heart and regard for its characters to make one want to see how it turns out. In a just world this would have gotten the theatrical release, but then again, it makes for a perfect TV matinee.
Written by Robert Kimmel, Gerry Lively, and Brian Rudnick
Directed by Gerry Lively