When it was introduced in the 1970s, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons found popularity among those who were too sophisticated for comic books, yet not quite ready to shake off the nerdy passions of adolescence. Controversy erupted when the leisure-time activity was blamed for the murders and/or suicides of several enthusiasts.
Moral guardians clucked their tongues. Parents worried more than they usually do. Columnists opined. Academics wrote dissertations on the topic. And the fad eventually faded, ultimately to resurface in the form of new-generation video games. But does anyone devote weekends to D&D anymore?
One look at "Dungeons and Dragons" -- a lavish cinematic spectacle starring a hammy, confused-looking Jeremy Irons and a sky full of smoke-billowing dragons as real as computer- generated technology can make them -- and longtime opponents of the hobby might be tempted to ask themselves an important question: How could this sort of overblown silliness pose any threat, except as a monumental time-killer?
A long way from his magnificent performance 12 years ago in "Dead Ringers," Irons is at the head of a class of actors wasting their talents in rookie director Courtney Solomon's fantasy film, which is notable chiefly for its eye-popping special effects. Black magic, white magic and/or some combination of the two are responsible for a variety of supernatural happenings in the Empire of Izmer (located in some netherworld not identified by time or geography): Portals open up to allow access through solid objects. Gold dust is used to temporarily debilitate attackers. Serpents with nasty overbites come slithering out of a man's head. The dead are revived. And that's not the half of it.
"Dungeons and Dragons" unsurprisingly, concerns itself with an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. The young Empress Savina (Thora Birch of "American Beauty"), a member of the elite group of magic bearers known as the Mages, seeks to make history by issuing an edict that will put her kind on equal footing with the commoners.
Profion (Irons), the grand poobah of the Mages-gone-bad (and the owner of the darkest, deepest, Gothiest dungeon in town), isn't quite ready to accept the power-sharing plan and bid adieu to the privileges that come with membership in the aristocracy. But he hasn't taken into account the enthusiasm of dashing Ridley (Justin Whalin) and wise-cracking Snails (Marlon Wayans of "Scary Movie"), a pair of thieves who are ingenious enough to escape the clutches of bald, hulking, blue-lipped henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne), capture the mythical Rod of Savrille and save the kingdom for righteousness.
Far less accomplished than early-'80s sword-and-sorcery spectacles "Excalibur" and "Conan the Barbarian," "Dungeons and Dragons" nevertheless should appeal to audience members bred on video games. A sequence that follows young Ridley's successful negotiation of a hall of dangers -- flames, swinging blades, pop-up spikes -- might have been lifted straight from the video arcade at your local mall.
To the rest of us, the major fun is in counting the numerous elements that have been derived from other movies. There are blue-and-purple-faced critters worthy of the "Star Wars" cantina, villains who wouldn't have been out of place on TV's "Star Trek," a red-bearded dwarf warrior named Elwood (Lee Arenberg) who could have wandered in from a Viking adventure and a government-meeting sequence that's the stuff of togas-and-sandals flicks. Funny, yes, but nothing to kill or die for.