Reign of Fire

Reign of Fire

USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler, Alice Krige, Alexander Siddig, Terence Maynard
Writers: Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka (story & screenplay); Matt Greenberg (screenplay)
Music: Ed Shearmur
Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle
Producers: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Lili Fini Zanuck, Richard D. Zanuck
Director: Rob Bowman


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

I n the near future, workers tunneling deep underground stumble across an ancient evil. The evil breeds and spreads, devastating the planet. Now, a small band of misfit survivors must battle to save the world.

Sounds like every bad sci-fi action movie ever made, doesn't it? But, this isn't a straight-to-video Christopher Lambert movie; this is a high-profile summer release from Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment.

There's not a shred of originality in Reign of Fire, except for one twist: the ancient evil consists of giant, fire-breathing dragons. Now that's something we haven't seen in a sci-fi action movie before! Sounds promising. There is a long and illustrious list of modestly budgeted, cliché-ridden genre films--Pitch Black, The Road Warrior, and even Fortress, to cite just a few--that have succeeded on the basis of clever production, plentiful and well-designed action, and a whole lotta levity. Like those films, Reign of Fire makes the most of its budget, but it doesn't have the good sense to have a little fun. Reign of Fire is a film smothered by its own solemnity.

Save for one scene, there's no laughter in Reign of Fire, and in that one scene (a celebration of a dragon kill) the revelers are rebuked for disrespecting the dead with their merriment. Reign of Fire is the sort of film where Character A will repeatedly strike a melancholy pose (perhaps gazing into a fire or standing near a burial ground) while Character B regards him thoughtfully, then approaches to have a discussion regarding what troubles him. Hmm… the planet is a pile of ashes and nearly everyone's dead. What could possibly be bothering anyone?

Christian Bale (still bearing his American Psycho muscles and Captain Corelli's Mandolin beard) and Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill, U-571) quixotically seek out the non-existent drama in these scenes when they could be hamming it up. Didn't anyone give either actor the bad sci-fi action-movie manual? Where's the improbable bravado punctuated by even more improbable one-liners? Gerard Butler and Christian BaleInstead, we get somber introspection and earnest heroism accentuated by arty touches like the opening-title image of England's patron saint, the legendary dragon-slaying St. George. This is not to say that fantasies can't be serious. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was a serious movie, and it was both an emotional potboiler and a ripping yarn. Reign of Fire doesn't have that kind of timeless script to work from, though. The story is quite basic.

A young boy named Quinn visits his mother (Alice Krige, whom some may remember as the Borg queen in Star Trek: First Contact) at an underground construction site in London, where her colleagues have inadvertently stumbled onto the lair of a hibernating computer-generated dragon. One dead construction crew and several years later, the boy has grown into the haunted leader (Bale) of a community of survivors occupying a castle in Norfolk, England, a relatively flat county that's played in the movie by a mountainous region of Ireland. Darn it, there goes the verisimilitude!

Disheartened, hunted, and hungry, these Brits are continually fire-bombed by the airborne lizards and live half their lives underground. It is their darkest hour. What they obviously need is for the Americans to bail them out. Draw your own portentous (or is that pretentious?) parallels to World War Two here.

Led by a bald and brash McConaughey and former Bond girl Izabella Scorupco, the Americans arrive in tanks and even a helicopter that has somehow survived in the dragons' global No-Fly Zone. They claim to be able to kill the dragons and take back the skies.

How can this be done?

Though we're told the dragons are beginning to starve (translation: not enough bipeds to support them all anymore), there are still thousands of them. We are also informed that they procreate more rapidly than they can be killed. However, in bad sci-fi action movies, a single heroic act can change the future, even where entire nuclear arsenals have failed. Our heroes are thus spared the tedious task of hunting down every dragon in the world, and we are spared the tedious task of watching them do so. All they have to do is find the Big Daddy. Dispose of him, and you wipe out the whole species, kind of like killing the head bloodsucker in a vampire movie.

The action sequences follow a predictable routine as well. There are typically five stages of action in a movie like this. First, the initial discovery of the monster(s), where the monster(s) makes its first kill. Second, the hunt of poor, overmatched unfortunates by the monster(s). Third, the initial successes of the heroes against the monster(s), in which the tide seemingly begins to turn. Fourth, the discovery by the heroes that they have underestimated the enemy, and that they are up against something Much Worse than they realized. Fifth, of course, is the Final Confrontation. You can set your watch by when each phase begins and ends in this movie. As for the action itself, it's not badly realized. The cartoon dragons aren't credible, particularly in wider shots, but the dangerous game of bait and trap used by the humans to bring them down makes for complicated and suspenseful sequences, which unfold on inventively designed sets. Too much dead time elapses between these episodes, however, dampening the film's energy.

Though the plot is run-of-the-mill stuff, Reign of Fire regards its content as grand tragedy--which of course it would be, if a scenario as ridiculous as dragons scorching modern-day Earth ever came to pass. Reign of Fire has no sense of its own absurdity. That in itself might be amusing, if the film weren't so gloomy and sluggish.

Review © July 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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