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Friday 12 July 2002

Reign of Fire

Directed by Rob Bowman
Written by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco

Reviewed by John Shirley

Some movies you can enjoy only if you shut your brain down while watching them. Don’t think, and go along for the ride — because that’s what they’re for. If you think about the internal logic of Reign of Fire too much, or expect something with the cleverly worked out conceptual development of, say, Alien, or even Independence Day, this film will disappoint.

Reign of Fire starts in contemporary times, when young Quinn visits his Mom while she’s toiling in some sort of mine, or perhaps subway tunnel, under London. He looks into a new cavern, just broken into, where sleeps a dragon. The dragon is just waking from its hibernation. He escapes, but his Mom doesn’t quite make it.

Skip ahead maybe fifteen years to a post-apocalyptic future. A vast scourge of fire-breathing dragons has destroyed civilization and decimated the Earth. Quinn has established a haven from the dragons, a threadbare colony in an old British castle. The colonists are starving, barely able to raise enough to eat. Somehow they have survived, despite the dragons’ quite thorough laying waste of the Earth. Rogue survivors defy Quinn, breaking out from the haven to harvest food before it’s quite ready — this is blurrily set up, or maybe my problem was those thick accents — and a dragon catches them out, frying some of them and half the crop. The dragons like their food cooked; they eat ashes, for no particular reason that was apparent.

Heroic Americans come (as tiresomely usual) to the rescue: a convoy of armored cars and tanks have come to England in a big transport plane to destroy the Big Daddy of dragons. For Matthew McConaughey , the cigar-chomping tattooed buffed-up Van Zan — a sort of post-apocalyptic Sergeant Rock — has discovered that all but one of the zillions of dragons in the world are female. Kill the Big Daddy and the species cannot survive. They think Big Daddy’s still in London. Van Zan tries to recruit Quinn to help him, fails at first, though he shows he’s a “dragonslayer.” There’s some kind of arcane, improbable dragon-killing team that drops out of helicopters, plummets over the dragons in freefall, and shoots special dragon-catching nets over them from above, parachuting to safety afterwards. One might think there would easier ways to snare dragons, since the dragons come close to Earth, but it makes for one of the film’s more exciting action scenes.

“Mad Max with dragons,” my wife called it, and in fact that’s probably how the film was pitched to its backers.

The characterization is carried off by solid actors: Christian Bale is very intense as Quinn, Matthew McConaughey nearly makes us believe his absurdly trite Van Zan character; Izabella Scorupco as the lady chopper pilot reads her lines very well, and isn’t afraid to show some appealing vulnerability despite her warrior-woman status. Quinn’s oversight of the colony seems believable enough (just enough); there’s a fetching scene where he entertains the colony’s big-eyed, underfed kids by enacting a scene from the original Star Wars trilogy: Darth and Luke’s fight up to “I am your father, Luke.” There’s some decent, well-engineered dialog, and then again there’s some clunky info-laden dialog, perhaps showing the director’s television-writing damage. And there’s a thin romance between Quinn and that lady helicopter pilot — who just happens to be a beautiful blonde.

The dragons are well designed, and sometimes they look great — other times they look like miniatures, albeit nicely sculpted miniatures. There’s a problem with proportions; the Big Daddy is supposed to be far bigger than the other dragons, but in most scenes he looks the same size.

These scaly beasts should be the real stars of the film — this is just a monster movie, ultimately — and sometimes they are. But they don’t seem to take on much personality or solid menace, perhaps because they do most of their killing with their flamethrower breath. We never quite see the heroes closely engaged with the dragons. (That would’ve been too costly.) Perhaps this film needed some small dragons; their young, say, could’ve been something like the raptors in Jurassic Park, so the actors could interact with them on a grittier level. And though we’re told in the trailers for the film that the dragons are intelligent, they show no intelligence at all in Reign of Fire.

The director displays panache and a certain grandeur at times — with that trendy blue-tone we’re seeing so much of lately — but fails to make the small moments seem palpably real. Small human moments are as important to a film as the big ones. The action scenes are sometimes confusingly edited, and the climactic scene seems abortive, insufficiently played out. I suspect much was cut from it. When Van Zan leaps from a building ledge at the Big Daddy we think he’s going to jump right onto the dragon and flail away with his axe, dying heroically in the attempt, and at some time in the production it may be that he did — but perhaps the scene was too hard to film, or came out badly, and they cut it. His demise is unclear, barely glimpsed, and there’s a kind of blip in the continuity at that point.

The real technical achievement in Reign of Fire is cinematography; it’s beautifully photographed. Dramatically, there’s enough action and dragon-y glory so that the film just works, if you maintain a boyish frame of mind, and don’t expect too much. There is a sense-of-wonder frisson to be had.

Just don’t think while you watch it. Don’t ask yourself why the hungry, undernourished dragons, which are still numerous, don’t attack the castle with its lights blazing, en masse. Don’t wonder about the plausibility of these dragons having just one male — and don’t ask yourself why a growling semi-literate from the American backwoods is the only guy who figures this out, after decades have passed. Don’t think about the physics of the dragons flying, and why it is that they are so hard to kill even with the world’s resources at hand, or how it is exactly that killing them “just makes them stronger.” And don’t ask where the heroes get the coffee they brew, or how they brought enough helicopter fuel from America, or...

See this at the drive-in, if you can find one: that’s my recommendation. Snuggle at the drive-in with your sugar pie, throw crumpled paper cups at your friend’s car, pee behind the projection building, and sneak Jack Daniels from the trunk of your car. This is an ideal drive-in movie.

If you want to see a really good dragon movie, rent Dragonslayer. But if you’re a thirteen-year-old boy — as I am, despite being technically 49 — you’ll probably enjoy this film, scales and all.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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