Movies like “Reign of Fire” allow me to separate my fanboy side from my movie critic side. As I always like to mention, all I ask from my movies is that, if they have nothing profound to offer the human species, then at least entertain me. The critic in me would like a film to make me contemplate the existence of life and death and all the pleasures and tragedies in-between. The fanboy in me just digs intriguing concepts, such as fire-breathing dragons ravaging our modern world, which is the plot of “Reign of Fire.” And, as a character narrates, only one species is going to survive this contest!
It would seem the dragons have the advantage as “Reign of Fire” opens. Mankind is on the run, having suffered through 20 years of carnage courtesy of the dragons. The dragons themselves were all spawned from one lone (although huge) male dragon that was accidentally awaken while hibernating (I guess is the right word) underneath London for all this time. Young Quinn was there when the dragon first woke, and he’s been terrified of them ever since. Quinn has since grown up (courtesy of Christian Bale from “American Psycho”) and is now the leader of a ragtag band of survivors hiding out in a broken down castle in the English countryside. Survival is meager at best and Quinn lives with the constant fear that the dragons will discover their hiding place and swoop down to finish them off.
Before audiences start thinking this is an exclusively British film, the gruff American commander Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) wanders into the picture with a small army of tough soldiers. Van Zan and his crew have been all over the world killing dragons and they have come to the conclusion that there is just one male dragon living somewhere in London. Van Zan thinks if he kills the male dragon he can stop the dragon population from expanding, thus giving humans a chance at survival. Van Zan and the timid Quinn, who was traumatized as a child because he saw the alpha male dragon kill his mother, butts heads. Van Zan wants to kill dragons, but Quinn would rather hide out in the castle’s basement.
“Reign of Fire” is directed by Rob Bowman (“The X-Files”) and it’s a slick, fast-moving production. Action sequences involving Van Zan’s crew battling the dragons are spectacular, especially a scene in the sky where Van Zan’s aerial squad — men who are used to “lure” the dragons into a trap by freefalling out of a helicopter gunship — takes on a dragon mano-a-mano with disastrous results. The action throughout is swift and brutal and there’s quite a large bodycount for a PG-13 film. (Which leads me to this thought: I wonder what sort of grand deaths the filmmakers could have conjured up if only this was an R-rated film?)
There is a possible romance between Alex (Izabella Scorupco, from “Goldeneye”), the gunship pilot in Van Zan’s crew, and Quinn, but it’s never followed up, which is a good thing. It’s also to the screenwriters’ credit that they don’t force a ridiculous love triangle between Alex, Quinn, and Van Zan, because the temptation must have been there. Alex sees Van Zan as a savior, a sort of God in human form, and her dedication and loyalty to him is supreme and unwavering. For his part, McConaughey is buff and gruff, growls his lines, and looks as nasty and disheveled (not to mention bald and scarred) as a man who has been hunting dragons for 20 years should look. In a word, he’s dead on.
A co-starring turn by Gerard Butler (“Dracula 2000”) as Creedy, Quinn’s right-hand man, provides the movie’s comedy. Butler shines, but his character is grossly underdeveloped. We know absolutely nothing about him. In fact, we know absolutely nothing about anyone except Quinn, and we don’t even know all that much about him.
“Reign of Fire” has some obvious budget problems that show up onscreen. (Or is the more appropriate phrase, doesn’t show up onscreen?) While the dragons are fantastic and look very real and dangerous, the action mostly takes place around the destroyed castle in the countryside until the very end. The end of the world is shown to us via voiceover narration and magazine articles. Which leaves me to wonder, if there were millions of dragons flying around the world 20 years ago burning up everyone in sight and scorching every building and city in reach, who took the time to write articles about it? In fact, who takes the time to publish those articles?
There’s also the matter of the destroyed cities. Once Van Zan and his crew enters London to go after the alpha male dragon, we see that most of the buildings are still on fire (and not just any fire, but raging fires), which doesn’t make any sense since the destruction happened 20 years ago. Unless the dragons went around re-igniting fires they started 20 years ago, shouldn’t those fires be out by now? Another major problem involves the film’s core plot point — that there is only one male dragon seeding all the other dragons. This leads me to ask the question: what are the odds that every single female dragon seeded by the alpha male will all have girls? Is there such a thing as a species that only gives birth to one gender? (If that’s the case, then how did the male dragon come to be?) Or does the alpha male dragon just have some weird sperm properties?
Questions and gaping plot holes aside, “Reign of Fire” is a pretty good and entertaining film. It’s rarely still, has some exciting action sequences and McConaughey gives a performance that rivals Vin Diesel’s star turn in “Pitch Black.” The man just exudes pure coolness, and you haven’t live until you see a tattoo-covered Van Zan leaping off the roof of a tower into empty air clutching a battle ax in order to go eyeball-to-eyeball with a charging dragon. Now that is just bloody cool.
Rob Bowman (director) / Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka, Matt Greenberg (screenplay)
CAST: Matthew McConaughey….Denton Van Zan
Izabella Scorupco …. Alex
Gerard Butler …. Creedy