Q: What's the difference between a fire-breathing dragon and a mid-summer movie?
A: One is a lumbering monster with a tiny brain that rains death and destruction, and the other is just a big lizard.
"Reign of Fire" is basically "Waterworld" with gasoline, with all that that entails. The story begins in London in 2008, when a tunnel crew unearths a massive underground chamber containing a dragon who, like most of us, is a little cranky first thing in the morning. The dragon, oddly, sleeps through the breaching of its den with a massive roaring drilling machine, and only wakes up when it is nudged. All of a sudden dragons are greeting the dawn all over the world and torching things with more reckless abandon than the U.S. Forest Service. The world is shortly destroyed, as we learn in a drawn-out opening sequence involving an unseen narrator writing in a journal, though he doesn't seem to be writing what he's saying. Most of the story takes place in 2020, where a society of refugees led by Quinn (Christian Bale) lives in a decrepit English castle, hiding from the dragons.
Things can only get so bad in Europe, of course, before the Americans show up, and show up they do, in an armored column of the Kentucky Irregulars, led by tattooed, bald nut case Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey). He has a crazy idea that entails killing the boss dragon, since it is the only male dragon of the millions around the globe (must be a busy fella).
It's critical in post-apocalypse movies to establish a credible and vivid world, with a balance of the modern and the primitive, and a sense of how societal priorities have changed to suit the new reality. The classic case was the jury-rigged ingenuity of the "Mad Max" movies, where V8 engines were prized and gasoline more precious than life. They weren't necessarily realistic, but they were believable, because they established a set of rules and stuck by them. "Reign of Fire" is all out of whack in this department: the castle-dwellers are on the brink of starvation, but seem to have a limitless supply of electricity, without even a cursory explanation of where it comes from. As part of their security net, they use massive searchlights to monitor the night skies. Uh, way to keep a low profile, guys. Van Zan's people, on the other hand, apparently have an endless supply of fuel, enough to maintain a gas-guzzling tank and a helicopter(!) with again, no hint of how. Not to mention the fact that the world was supposedly nuked to get rid of the dragons, yet the word "radiation" never so much as passes anyone's lips. Plus, the movie can't even keep track of its own timeline.
All this could have been forgiven if we got some gut-wrenching army n' dragon smackdowns. Van Zan is supposed to be a fearsome dragon killer, so you would figure that he and his militia would have some savvy anti-dragon tactics figured out, from the painful lessons learned by the doomed struggle of the world's armies, but no. When they take on a dragon in the castle environs, their plan of attack is so suicidally ludicrous it would take a minor miracle to work just once. Without going into too much detail, it involves ground-based radar monitors, a high-tech computer tracking system, and skydivers, all to try and bring the beast to earth so McConaughey can kill it with an axe. Seriously.
The movie has its good points, though: it is capably directed by TV veteran Rob Bowman, who at least manages to imbue the ridiculous proceedings with some sort of dramatic tension. The climactic battle is pretty impressive, and there is an awesome scene of the dragon hovering over the militia while lines of tracers whip through the night sky and the smoke roils under his wings. Wolf Kroeger's production design isn't bad, the landscape is suitably scorched and desperate, though it looks like they might have swiped some sets from "Enemy at the Gates". The dragons themselves, of course, are amazing. They are truly mean hombres of fluid reptilian grace, whose jaws leak flaming liquid as they breathe. They (almost) convince you that they really could have destroyed the world, that they wouldn't have been swatted from the sky in two seconds by any F-18 pilot with half a brain and a rack of heat-seekers. But then you expect great effects from even the most dim-witted of movies these days.
Like most monster movies, "Reign of Fire" suffers badly when the monsters are offscreen catching a smoke break, and we are left with flat characters speaking silly dialogue in a tepid story. Bale is all right, though his character comes off as something of a weenie. McConaughey, meanwhile, has no chemistry with anyone or anything on screen. He's a buffed-out paramilitary psycho, but not an interesting one. You can't figure out how he became the leader (maybe he was the only one who could drive a tank). The most engaging character is Alex, the helicopter pilot, played by Izabella Scorupco (the luminous computer expert in "GoldenEye"), who isn't given much attention by the script, but who seems like she would have been a better choice to lead the militia. Too bad she wasn't the main character.
But the humans aren't the real stars anyway. I sort of picture a dragon, guzzling an Evian bottle of lighter fluid, and barking into his cell phone:
"I'm telling you, Marty, I've had it! C'mon, I can fly! I can breathe fire! That idiot T-Rex gets a three-picture deal with Spielberg, and what do I get? First "Dungeons & Dragons" and now THIS! Whaddaya doing to me? Get me a meeting with Katzenberg, or I torch Burbank."
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