"There's nothing magical about them!"
At the turn of the 21st century, a young boy named Quinn visits his mother at work on a London excavation site. Helping with the dig, Quinn finds himself in the long dormant lair of a fire-breathing dragon, and inadvertently sets the dragon free again to roam the Earth. Cut to 2020, and the planet has been burned to a crisp by the ever-multiplying demons. Quinn (Christian Bale) and other English survivors are camped underground, trying desperately to fight off the swarming masses of dragons that litter the sky. Arriving one day is Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), a hardened American looking for temporary shelter with his dragon-slaying crew (including Izabella Scorupco of "Goldeneye," who despite being a great actress and unspeakably gorgeous, has yet to become a Hollywood star). When the team learns of one lone male dragon (who can populate the Earth with millions of offspring) hiding out in London, it's up to Quinn and Van Zan to overcome the odds and fight to save mankind.
After years of "Dungeons and Dragons," Dragonheart," and even our friend "Puff," it's wonderful to see this mythological beast brought to the screen with such a crucial amount of respect and terror. "Reign of Fire" (IMDb listing) is really closer to the heart of Matthew Robbins' grim, deeply flawed 1981 masterpiece "Dragonslayer," a film so caked with atmosphere you could lick the screen and literally taste the plague. Both films inhabit a serious tone, where the violence of the beasts is handled with realism and accuracy. There's no cuddly Sean Connery voice here to diffuse the horror, and no Helen Reddy tunes either. Just fire breathing devils raining down hell from the sky the way God intended.
Credit that to director Rob Bowman. Bowman did such a credible job bringing the "X-Files" to the big screen with his whiz-bang "Fight the Future" feature film of 1998, that special effects and two completely opposite leads are no problem for him. Bowman paints his year 2020 future with a gray paintbrush, using the barren and cold post-apocalyptic hues to their most forbidding degree. Shot by elegant craftsman Adrian Biddle (the dud "Event Horizon," but man did it look great), "Reign of Fire," at least, is photographed well. Combine that with a killer production design by Wolf Kroger and marvelous special effects that do a seamless job placing wildly ambitious dragon effects in with all the principals. Technically speaking, "Reign of Fire" is a top notch job all around.
Story wise, though, the dragons take the upper hand. The screenwriters have cooked up a great tale in which man has reached a point where he can face the dragons equally in battle. But "Reign of Fire" doesn't favor a global outlook on the story, instead placing all the action in one locale for most of the picture. Over the course of one montage early in the film, we are allowed to see the destruction that's occurred since the dragons took power. I wanted more of that. I wanted to see nations at war with the creatures, not what ends up being just three characters running around London with some arrows and incredible aim. I believe this premise is too ripe to lowball it by keeping the combat to one corner of the planet. This is especially prevalent in the ending of the picture, where a worldwide perspective is sorely missed.
Thankfully though, the actors have come to play. While physically built beyond any logical means (didn't the dragons burn down the local Ballys?), both Bale and McConaughey are ready to wage war with their scruffy beards and six-pack abs. McConaughey is having the most fun, as his character is just a regular guy who's seen one too many war films and is now stuck in a permanent battle with the enemy. McConaughey chews up the scenery with his every glance, but the film needs this type of dedication to the story to survive. Bale, as the conscience of the piece, is less effective, if only because his character is burdened by logic. He speaks his native British tongue, so make sure you see this film in a crisp digital theater, otherwise his accent will have you scratching your heads until the end credits roll.
"Reign of Fire" is habitually defective, and for those cynics out there, the tale requires suspension of disbelief on a scale that rivals The Great Wall Of China. But the film is an enjoyable enough romp through dragons and destruction that has the right ideas for this genre, if not the best script to execute them to end game.
Filmfodder Grade: B