In Defense of Chris Pine, the Best Hollywood Chris

"Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" pushes him past Pratt, Evans and Hemsworth

March 30, 2023 6:12 am
Chris Pine
The best Chris we've got.
Getty Images, Corey Nickols

Chris Pine is heading back to movie screens, starring in the new fantasy game adaptation Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, in a clear bid to make this his new franchise-movie home. Within about a month, we’ll also see Chris Evans in the Apple streaming movie Ghosted, with Ana de Armas, and Chris Pratt leading the voice cast of The Super Mario Bros. Movie before returning to his signature Guardians of the Galaxy role, perhaps for the last time. Collectively, this means that, in all likelihood, Twitter users and entertainment writers will dutifully trudge back to their devices and clock in for another round of the Best Chris debate. The four-way battle royale between Chrises Hemsworth, Pine, Evans and Pratt, which features no actual battles between the participants, is closing in on celebrating its tenth anniversary, which is roughly six centuries in discourse years. 

Whatever the merits of this evergreen conversation, Chris Pine seems as much like an underdog as possible in a competition among four handsome cishet white men. He’s the only one of the four who doesn’t play a Marvel superhero; his foray into superhero cinema was playing the charming love interest and sidekick in Wonder Woman, albeit a strapping man-of-action-version of that character. In any event, he’s dead and highly unlikely to be revived again for any potential Wonder Woman 3. Pine’s Star Trek role is also in limbo, and as good as he is as an alternate-timeline Captain Kirk — he’s delightful! — it’s still a role that will be most associated with someone else even if the series unexpectedly rallies and makes nu-Treks four through six. 

Outside the franchise world, Pine has developed a quicksilver restlessness and occasional eccentricity. His voice sounds a bit like Christian Slater, lending him a hint of danger; his good looks appear on the constant verge of distortion, something his weirder (and more oddly costumed) supporting parts have played into over the years, after a series of early-career rom-coms didn’t quite fit his energy. Even after finding his leading-man niche as the decent guy with a mischievous streak, Pine can’t make any great claims of quality control. I know this because I watched every movie he’s ever made for a listicle a few years back, and only about half of them rise to the level of “acceptable.” Granted, none of the Chrises have racked up tons of collaborations with pantheon-level filmmakers. But Pine still lags well behind Evans (who has worked with Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, Bong Joon-ho and Danny Boyle) — and no matter what you think of Chris Pratt, the Parks and Recreation character he helped create will live forever in reruns and comfort streaming rewatches. Pine, meanwhile, has pivoted from several recent forays into grown-up thrillers that were grimmer than they were edifying into a jokey fantasy movie based on a role-playing game. The previous big-screen adaptation of this game hit multiple careers with the Sword of Wounding. 

So it’s particularly impressive, then, that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves works as well as it does — and that Pine slips into the silliness with movie-star ease. He plays Edgin, a hero-turned-thief who seems at first to follow the Marvel model of toothless roguishness, stealing only for the right reasons and attempting to raise his young daughter. (In other words, he’s basically Ant-Man without the high-tech suit.) Edgin later reveals some darker impulses that nonetheless remain relatively tame. But Pine has a light enough touch for this mild moral shading to register, while not making his ultimate goodness a foregone conclusion.

Edgin also, crucially, has the air of a man who genuinely enjoys the raffish business of planning magical heists, perhaps because Pine has the air of a man who genuinely enjoys the ridiculous business of acting in a Dungeons & Dragons movie. The movie matches this sincerity, again departing from that influential late-period-Marvel tone of vague, wan-joke irreverence. Though filmmaking team Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have a background in comedy and fill their fantasy adventure with jokes and banter, much of this material derives from characters and situations (albeit often ludicrous ones). Edgin and his fierce warrior pal Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company; the running gags about Edgin’s proclivity for lute-playing or Holga’s for much smaller men aren’t really fodder for cutesy sarcastic commentary. Not every joke lands, but few of them stop the movie cold in that pause-for-a-punch-up Eternals sort of way.

There are other reasons for the success of Honor Among Thieves that don’t have to do with Pine (or disappointing superhero movies). Goldstein and Daley choreograph set pieces for logistical amusements, like tracking a shapeshifting druid (Sophia Lillis) as she escapes pursuers in a series of perspective-shifting animal guises, rather than maximizing apocalyptic mayhem. At the same time, the visual effects are lush and inventive enough to accommodate a variety of creatures and settings, from fearsome to casual. The movie uses both this wealth of resources and its comic tone to replicate the D&D role-playing experience: Its world is vast, but whimsical, sometimes intentionally bordering on nonsensical. It turns the arbitrary nature of semi-improvised gaming into an adventurous slyness.

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That tone is a good match for Pine, and he does more than his share to hold this big-budget undertaking aloft. In doing so, he hints at why certain fans and writers can’t stop talking about the Chris Debate in the first place. As movie studios have grown ever more focused on branded tentpoles, the movie-star market has depressed. Yet movies can’t exactly quit actors, either. Even Marvel rests on casting figures like Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman, and, yes, Chris Evans, whose Captain America formed such a convincing moral backbone for the whole enterprise early on, giving faces for us to find in the crowds of pixels. That’s arguably even more important in a movie like Dungeons & Dragons, which has no pool of cameos to draw upon, no iconic costumes to do the virtual students, no real popular narrative lore to tease. It can only hope to offer a good time. 

The presence of four different same-named guys hovering around 40, appearing in similar (or even, in the case of certain franchise movies, the actual same) films and hoping to elevate them beyond effects demo reels or pale imitations of the past, somehow feels both promising and redundant. Pitting the Chrises against each other is a way of acknowledging and undermining the handsome-white-leading-man status quo while still, on some level, engaging in a kind of nostalgia for it. It elevates these four actors to Pitt/Damon/DiCaprio heights we suspect they may not reach, then encourages them to (metaphorically) duke it out to stay there. Obviously, we can’t keep all four, can we? But could we have one or two Chrises, as a treat?

Maybe that’s why Chris Pratt, whose persona transformed from goofball parody of masculinity to an attempt at nouveau-Bruce Willis wisecracking guy’s guy, has become the go-to fourth-place finisher (at least in the cloistered realms of Twitter and movie nerds). He’s the Chris who seems least aware of how limited that space has become. This also relates to why Pine feels like a perpetual champion, despite his uneven filmography: Whatever ambition must exist to encourage his pursuit of franchise fare seems infused with an understanding of how fluky it all is. This doesn’t make these actors interchangeable; Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves would likely play differently with Pratt, Evans or Hemsworth at its center. Rather, it generates appreciation for Pine’s ability to work within these confines, to stay at the movie’s tempo rather than trying to outrun it. He submits to the role-playing. There may be “only” four main Chrises, but really, they’re all just faces on a 20-sided die. 

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