'Reign of Fire' Review: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter
I shouldn't have enjoyed Reign of Fire as much as I did; it's a really dumb movie. But, it's a really dumb movie in a way that you can't help but love it. It features Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey as ragged survivors who join forces to fight an ancient evil otherwise known as CGI dragons. It's as insane as it sounds considering the eventual star power of the top two stars in the film, but it also creates a really interesting world and mythology that is barely explored.
The film follows Quinn, played by Bale, as he attempts to keep survivors in England safe from the dragon onslaught whose discovery he witnessed firsthand. The survivors are barely able to make it due to the charred world left by the destruction of the dragons. However, one day a group of ex-military Americans show up lead by Denton Van Zan, played with hints of Rust Cohle by McConaughey. Van Zan tells Quinn that he has done the impossible: he figured out a way to kill dragons. He has come to England to hunt down the only male dragon and possibly rid the world of the dragon scourge. It's an interesting premise that draws on B-movies and sci-fi movies of the 80s to set a serious tone.
The two leads in the film are absolutely fantastic in their respective roles. Bale has a knack for being able to play tortured characters, and Quinn is another great example of that. Not only did he witness his mother die at the hands of the male dragon, but he has also been a failure at providing for the survivors under his care. Bale feels right at home as Quinn, and while I'm not his biggest fan, I did enjoy him in the film. McConaughey is on a whole different level as the gruff, technovikingesque Denton Van Zan. Mind you, this is McConaughey circa 2002, not the Oscar winning powerhouse that we think of today. Around this time, he was known as the king of the rom-com with films like The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Seeing him in Reign of Fire was almost a preview into what his career would transition into around 2010. He is the best part of the film, even if his character does the most boneheaded thing I've ever seen a badass do in an action movie. Also, Izabella Scorupco and Gerard Butler are in the film, but honestly, they don't do a whole lot.
Along with the performances, the setting and effects of the film are pretty great. While the setting may not be the most unique, it's always interesting to see different interpretations of a ravaged world. The dragons destroyed the world by causing the world leaders to use nukes and other weapons to inadvertently destroy themselves but not the dragons. This bleak, grayscale landscape is really well done and well shot, especially when they enter London towards the end of the film. It's a mangled mess of broken buildings and empty streets with the arbiters of destruction hanging overhead.
Speaking of the dragons, they are about as good as it can get for early 2000s effects. It also helps that they aren't shown in full for most of the film, resorting more to quick cuts and build-up rather than to a full own CGI-fest. The male dragon does look great towards the end of the film, and makes for an interesting and well designed monster for the film. It's hard to bring a fantastical idea like dragons to life in a grounded setting, but the film succeeds in that respect.
Of the issues with the film, the main is that the film doesn't seem to have a sense of fun that goes a film about a dragons in the 21st century. Its hurt, not greatly, by the super serious tone that doesn't leave much room for wisecracking or even a semblance of humor. I may have enjoyed the film even more if it had a sense of camp or black humor to it, rather than playing everything straight. At the end of the day, it's a movie about dragons and a bearded Matthew McConaughey running around with a giant axe.
If you're jonesing for some dragons versus Batman and Rust Cohle, then Reign of Fire is right up your alley. It's a big dumb movie that tries to play the ridiculousness of the situation straight and somehow doesn't entirely mess it up. Come for the dragons, stay for McConaughey's epic viking beard and comically large axe.
Final Say: Watch It