Reign of Fire
Screenplay : Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg (story by Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Matthew McConaughey (Denton Van Zan), Christian Bale (Quinn Abercromby), Izabella Scorupco (Alex), Gerard Butler (Creedy), Randall Carlton (Tito), Doug Cockle (Goosh), Maree Duffy (Diamond), Duncan Keegan (Michael), Rory Keenan (Devon), Scott Moutter (Jared), Benny Nieves (Alvarez), Alexander Siddig (Ajay)
There is a lot of talk about ashes in Reign of Fire, which is appropriate because the movie looks like it was filmed through a perpetual haze of the stuff. This is not necessarily a criticism--after all, as a post-apocalyptic action flick in the which the apocalypse took the form of millions of napalm-breathing dragons that burned the world as we know it to a cinder, that is the intended look of the movie. If you like your action-fantasy movies grim and dreary, Reign of Fire is for you.
Most of the story takes place in 2020, a decade after an ancient species of dragon was accidentally awakened from their slumber far beneath London. According to the movie, dragons were responsible for killing off the dinosaurs, and now they are doing the same thing to humans. Apparently the worst of environmental offenders, they arise every few million years, destroy all life on earth, and then go into hibernation once they start starving to death. In a montage of newspaper and magazine covers, we are informed that the dragons rapidly multiplied into the millions and destroyed most of human civilization (one cover of Time magazine shows an image of dragons setting flame to a major U.S. city and asks, "Is This the End?").
One rag-tag group of survivors is led by Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), who, as a 12-year-old boy, was actually the first to discover the dragons while visiting his mother in an underground work site. Having assembled a small community of adults and children, Quinn hopes to find a way to rekindle civilization despite the presence of the dragons. This sentiment is not shared by Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), a gruff American military leader who has created an elite squad of commands and come across the ocean to find a way to destroy the dragons once and for all. As he puts it, there is no chance for human/dragon coexistence.
Written by first-timers Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka along with Matt Greenberg (Halloween H20), Reign of Fire is supremely silly, but positions itself as a grim exploration of the human will to survive in the face of all obstacles. The dragons, surprisingly, aren't on screen all that much, at least until the end, which leaves plenty of time for human bickering and leadership jockeying, particularly between Quinn and Van Zan, who represent, respectively, liberal progressivism and reactionary militarism. Amazingly enough, at various points in the movie, they are both shown to be wrong, although the "kill the dragons" mentality eventually wins out in the end (how could it not?). To be fair, it's hard to see another route, as the dragons are characterless killing and burning machines that leave no other options.
Director Rob Bowman (The X-Files movie) stages most of the action in dreary environments shot with cold blue filters that gives everything a look of perpetual despair (it seems that the dragons managed to snuff out the sun while they were laying waste to the earth). He attempts to evoke a Mad Max-like aura of a new, harder human civilization struggling out of the remains of the old order, but everything eventually falls back on the dichotomy of run or fight. Bowman stages some almost spectacular setpieces, some of which have a "wow" quality even though they don't make a lick of sense (I still can't figure out the strategy behind soldiers hurling themselves out of a helicopter and trying to throw nets on a dragon). The production design by Wolf Kroeger (Enemy at the Gates, The 13th Warrior) is appropriately grim, as are the costumes and make-up (lots of sweat and dirty fingernails and tattoos and facial hair), but too much of the movie looks like it was simply shot in abandoned industrial parks, which never entirely bring to life the sense of postapocalyptic destruction the movie is so desperately reaching for.
Movies like Reign of Fire generally don't rest on the actors' shoulders, but, in this case, Matthew McConaughey takes the movie up a notch with his fabulously over-the-top performance as Van Zan. With a stubbly shaved head and frazzled blonde beard, McConaughey's flinty blue eyes are allowed to dominate his face like never before, and he brings a deranged humor to his militaristic cartoon of a character, bellowing and carrying on like Patton gone mad (it's a real let-down when the movie tries to humanize him near the end, even stuffing the unbelievable phrase "I was wrong" in his mouth). Christian Bale (American Psycho) doesn't fare as well, but that's largely because his character, being the voice of reason, is dull by comparison. McConaughey, more than anyone else, looks like he's having a good time out there in the burned-out wasteland, which almost makes one forget how seriously Reign of Fire takes itself, ridiculous though it is.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick