Pity the dragon. When not building lame adventures around the mythical beasts (Dungeons & Dragons), filmmakers have saddled the poor creatures with the smooth baritone stylings of Sean Connery (Dragonheart). Reign of Fire, director Rob Bowman's grim vision of a ravaged future, doesn't completely reverse the negative trend, but it does borrow enough recognizable elements of contradictory genres to fashion a passable monster mash.
In the not-too-distant future, London drillers uncover a dragon's lair far below the surface, awakening a horde of slumbering beasts and triggering a mass invasion. The creatures pillage our planet, destroying every major city from Paris to New York. We're not shown the attacks, but rather a montage of headlines from newspapers.
By the year 2020, very little of what we consider the Earth remains. Quinn (Christian Bale), who leads a community in hiding outside the boundaries of London, has convinced his followers they can outlast the dragons, since fighting them has so far proved futile. Television producer Mark Burnett might call it Survivor to the nth degree, but it's a grisly existence, with the fear of attack ever present.
Alternate options arise in the form of a band of American marauders, who arrive at Quinn's castle seeking refuge. Their leader, Van Zant (Matthew McConaughey), subscribes to a suicidal theory that dragons can be hunted instead of avoided. He sports a tooth the size of his thumb from a dragon he felled in Kansas, proving the beasts can be bested. Van Zant's armed for a war, but Quinn is less than enthused to use his clan for dragon feed.
McConaughey appears to have the most fun with his part. Chomping an extinguished cigar and bulging his eyeballs out beyond his bald cranium, he stares right through the fire-breathers, focusing instead on the greener pastures they're keeping him from. If there were a serious market for post-apocalyptic dragonslaying pictures, McConaughey could carve himself a new career path. Bale, on the other hand, barely registers. Hidden behind a tuft of hair and a five-month-old scruff of beard, his face lacks fire and passion. McConaughey's eyes dance wildly, while Bale's choose to sit this one out.
Perhaps he sensed how artificially macho the screenplay had become. The dialogue couldn't be worse, requiring characters to spout, "We can do this easy, or we can do this real easy." Reign is about as manly as films get nowadays without taking place in prison. When Quinn and Van Zant fail to compromise on the direction of the community, they brawl. It solves little, but ratchets up the already high testosterone level.
Van Zant's plan for capturing dragons provides the film with its coolest sequence. Skydivers dubbed "archangels" plummet from a helicopter and battle the fire-breathers in mid-air. The creative idea juices the proceedings and rivals any other generic attack scenes in the film.
Still, Reign remains a dragon movie where the dragons fail to impress. Bowman initially hides his creations, obscuring them by clouds or plumes of smoke. But the effect never generates the desired suspense a la Jaws, instead feeling like a budget-preserving device. It's not until the sole male dragon begins wreaking havoc that this adventure heats up. This creature shows its scaly face about an hour into the film, and you won't miss too much if you choose to wander in at this point.
Set designer Simon Wakefield deserves credit for his desolate landscapes, even if the bulk of them have been set on fire. The rolling green fields of Ireland stand in as the scorched earth outside London for most of the exteriors. One colleague asked why the fields were so fresh if the dragons were supposed to have scorched everything. I couldn't answer him, as I was too busy trying to noodle through why dragons hunted people at all, since we're told they feed on ash. Unanswered questions like these prevent me from quite recommending Reign of Fire. It's a lot of smoke, but too few mirrors.
Minor extras on the DVD include a couple of making-of documentaries. The one on the film's fire effects is especially interesting, if for no other reason than to reveal how environmentally catastrophic the making of the movie must have been. Forget dragons, I'm afraid of chemicals!
Nice nest egg.