Dudes & Dragons (2015)

aka Dragon Warriors

2018 #145
Maclain Nelson & Stephen Shimek | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

Dragon Warriors

Back in 2014, when it felt like I was contributing to Kickstarters for film projects left, right and centre (including a variety of short films I still haven’t got round to watching and several projects which never amounted to anything, which is why I’ve largely stopped), I helped fund a fantasy comedy called Dragon Warriors. To cut to the quick, it was eventually released as Dudes & Dragons, the title changed presumably to better indicate its comedic tone, and apparently at the end of last week it popped up on Prime Video UK — so, naturally, that made me finally get round to watching my Blu-ray copy.

In a Dungeons & Dragons-y world, no one can show signs of love lest they be torched by the fearsome dragon Dolvarnög (the pronunciation of which is one of the film’s better recurring jokes). In fact, the dragon is commanded by evil sorcerer Lord Tensley (James Marsters, of Buffy and Angel fame), whose personal experiences with love have left him bitter. The dragon is just one threat to the relationship between human Camilan (Maclain Nelson) and elf Larec (Clare Niederpruem), and so he teams up with his mercenary brother Ramicus (Adam Johnson) — plus Camilan’s stable boy, Samton (Jake Van Wagoner), and Ramicus’ lodger, orc Shokdor (Erik Denton) — to save the world, etc.

Comedy!

As I said, and as the title surely implies, Dudes & Dragons is ostensibly a comedy — though not the kind of comedy the re-titling implies, I don’t think. I guess the lead characters are “dudes”, but they’re not, like, “dude” dudes… if you know what I mean. Setting that aside, potential hilarity is undercut by the film being overburdened with plot. My summary didn’t even mention the object of Tensley’s affections, his cousin Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who summons our heroes on their mission; or that Camilan’s parents forbid his marriage to Larec because of some stuff to do with laws of succession or something — this is meant to be a comedy, fellas! Who wrote it, Phantom Menace-era George Lucas? This necessitates rather too many scenes of exposition, especially early on, meaning it’s a while before the gags really begin to flow.

Well, “flow” is a generous descriptor — the gag rate is alarmingly low. The exposition scenes are balanced on a knife edge where you can’t tell if the actors are playing it tongue-in-cheek because it’s supposed to be humorous, or if it’s because they’re reaching for a florid style that they think is correct for a serious High Fantasy movie. (“High” fantasy is probably what you expect from a movie called Dudes & Dragons, actually, isn’t it?) Put another way: take those joke-less scenes out of context and you might think they were just am-dram Fantasy. James Marsters is probably best equipped to navigate this, giving a sterling go at being both villainous and comic, though the uneven tone means he’s never allowed to be properly menacing nor properly hilarious, a balance we know he can strike thanks to the aforementioned Whedon series. The rest of the cast actually aren’t bad — when the script gives them some decent material, there are laughs to be had. The weakest link is a cameo from Luke Perry, who’s worse than most of the non-famous cast.

Buffy flashbacks

Production-wise, this is a very low-budget effort and it shows, but if you give it the benefit of bearing those cheap-and-cheerful roots in mind, it doesn’t look half bad. Well, mostly. I mean, some of the costumes are a bit cosplay, but the creature prosthetics are pretty good; and the CGI monsters are alright considering the next-to-no-budget; and it’s decently shot, especially some sequences that spoof the oeuvre of Zack Snyder, though it’s sometimes distracting that it was all done on green screen — were there no real forests nearby they could’ve popped down to?

There’s some enjoyment to be had in Dudes & Dragons for the more forgiving viewer. It would’ve been helped immeasurably by a more streamlined plot, a higher preponderance of genuine gags, and probably by being a good 20 or 30 minutes shorter, too. As it is, most people after some fantasy-based laughs are going to want to look elsewhere.

2 out of 5

Veronica Mars (2014)

2014 #22
Rob Thomas | 108 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you hadn’t heard of Veronica Mars before 13th March 2013, you almost certainly did soon after. That’s the date Rob Thomas, creator of the six-years-dead TV series of the same name, launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to pay for the long-mooted continuation movie. Aiming for a whopping $2 million, it raised that in just 11 hours, going on to bag $5.7 million by the end of its 30-day campaign. In the process it became the fastest Kickstarter project to reach $1 million (and $2 million), the highest-funded film project ever on the site, with the most number of backers for any campaign, and inspired countless think-pieces on how it was ruining/saving the movie industry, or at least completely changing it forever. In reality, very few (if any) big-name Kickstarter movies have come along since, and those that have haven’t inspired the same fervour as Veronica did three years ago.

The film itself picks up nine years after the end of the TV series. A quick opening montage reminds/informs us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) moonlighted as a private investigator while she was in high school, making plenty of enemies in the process and enduring more than a few tragedies, but she eventually managed to drag herself out of that life and start afresh. Just as she’s about to begin a career as a high-flying lawyer in New York, she sees on the news that her one-time on-off love interest Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) has been arrested for murder. Then he phones asking for her help. Just when she thought she was out, etc. So Miss Mars heads back to little old Neptune, California, just in time for her ten-year high school reunion and a murder investigation involving all (well, most of) the familiar faces from the TV show.

There’s no denying that this is primarily a film for fans of the TV series — well, they did fund it, after all. The best way to get the most out of the film is to have watched all 64 episodes of the show first; preferably soon before, in fact, so you can remember who all the minor characters are. However, creator-cowriter-director Rob Thomas is no fool: you don’t produce a successful movie that continues a little-watched TV show by making it a requirement that you’ve watched 64 hours of TV first. (I mean, Joss Whedon knew that with Serenity, and there’s only 14 hours of Firefly.) So Veronica Mars: The Movie is accessible to neophyte viewers. You might sense there’s references and whatnot that are passing you by, but everything that’s relevant is explained.

The long gap between series and continuation actually works to the film’s advantage, too, because this plays as the story of someone revisiting an old life, in a place that’s in some ways different and in others exactly, depressingly the same. The hook here is of Veronica as a kind of addict, but instead of being addicted to booze or drugs, it’s private investigating — she may be nine years ‘sober’, but now she’s being tempted to indulge. Again, this makes even more sense if you’ve watched the TV show, where a subplot deals with Veronica’s mother’s alcoholism, but the general conceit works standalone.

Plus, this is a crime drama — there’s a case to be solved, and that’s self-contained within the film. Okay, most of the players are characters from the series, but everything is introduced and explained within the film. Heck, there are even characters Veronica knew in school who weren’t actually in the TV series, which might give you a flavour of how it works both for fans and newcomers. The case itself isn’t a bad mystery, but at the same time it’s a little subservient to the other goings-on. I suppose you could argue this is really a comedy-drama about a woman reconnecting with her past life and past friends, and she just happens to have a murder to investigate at the same time.

For fans (who will have watched this years ago, hence why I’m focusing on the newbie experience), the film is immensely rewarding. Obviously, because it finally gives some closure to the cancelled series’ dangling elements; but also, it feels like Veronica Mars, not like something from older people that’s only claiming to be what it once was. There’s the sparky characters, the funny repartee, the raft of neo-noir allusions. As cheesy as “teenage private eye” sounds, one of the reasons Veronica worked was because it really used those noir elements, just grafted on to the high school experience. The town of Neptune is practically a throwback in this regard, with rich kids and businessmen who can buy their way out of trouble thanks to a thoroughly corrupt police department, while the poor schmucks at the bottom of the pile get by as best they can, which often is not well. It didn’t even cave to the usual youthification of adding happy endings; in fact, more often than not, things didn’t end well. The movie isn’t quite as bleak as the TV series often was — there’s clearly an awareness this might be a one-time deal, so Thomas wants to leave things suitably wrapped up — but not everything comes up roses. (Where’s the sequel at?!) And to pay things off fully, there’s a tonne of fun references, not just to the show but also to real life (not least the Kickstarter campaign).

To bring up Firefly/Serenity again, I think there’s a reasonable parallel between how those relate to each other, and how they can work for newbies, and how Veronica Mars the TV series and Veronica Mars the movie relate. To wit: in an ideal world, you’d watch all of the series and then the film; but TV series can be long commitments, and for a spot of ‘dipping your toe in the water’, you can also start with the movie and go back to the series for the full picture. Sure, some things are going to be spoiled doing it that way round — but hey, not everyone who’s in the series but not the film ends up dead, I promise.

When I first watched the movie, it was at the end of a first-time binge through the TV series, where it sat very happily. To finally write this review, I watched the film again in isolation. I have a memory, so obviously I’m not coming at it from a totally fresh perspective, but it was as entertaining in isolation as it had been as “one more episode”. Fans will get the biggest kick out of seeing old characters resurface, out of learning what’s happened to them in the past decade, out of seeing big-name cameos alongside familiar faces, out of all the callbacks and nods, out of certain things finally being resolved. But that doesn’t mean newcomers can’t get joy from meeting these characters for the first time, from the self-contained mystery and storylines, from the fresh gags — indeed, from all the things that make the TV show entertaining if you started there. And then, if they like it, there’s the joy of there being 64 more instalments to discover.

More than just a nostalgia trip for people who were there first time round, the movie is a strong addition to the Veronica Mars canon — as someone who didn’t discover the series until the Kickstarter campaign, I thought the film was a heck of a lot of fun, and a wonderful capstone to a mostly-great series. That said, there’s plenty of room for further cases… someday… hopefully…

4 out of 5

Veronica Mars is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK from tomorrow.