Any movie starring Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey is bound to be good. But set it in the future, throw in some dragons and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster.
Despite some typically cheesy dialogue and a few awkward monologues, McConaughey and Bale rise above the weaknesses of the script to deliver rock-solid performances as Denton Van Zan (McConaughey), an in-your-face American who has assembled a miniature army, and Quinn (Bale), the sensible and trusted leader of a group of survivors holed up in a medieval British castle.
The opening sequence of Reign of Fire occurs 10 years prior to the rest of the film. It introduces Quinn as a somewhat mischievous young boy who bravely penetrates a haunting underground lair (his mother digs tunnels for a living) and discovers the dormant dragon. It also shows Quinn’s mom being killed by the dragon as it climbs up a construction elevator shaft. And since Quinn was the one who originally stirred the dragon to life with his curiosity, he bears the burden of her death. And the toll quickly rises.
As the story fast-forwards to the year 2020, a montage of destructive images and multilingual headlines proclaim the rapidly multiplying dragons’ paths of destruction. By this point, human civilization has been destroyed for all practical purposes, and only a few pockets of survivors exist, cut off almost completely from one another.
Quinn and some other remaining survivors have hunkered down in their castle, leaving only to harvest crops for their meager food supply.
Quinn and his followers have pretty much resolved themselves to the fact that the dragons rule, and the best they can hope for is to hide their way to survival. They don’t even think about challenging the beasts. Their best weapon to ward off dragons is a water cannon.
So when Van Zan shows up with tanks, soldiers, and, yes, even a Black Hawk helicopter, no one in the castle knows quite what to make of it. As Van Zan emerges from a tank with an American flag sewn onto his vest, one of the British survivors comments, “The only thing worse than dragons … Americans.” Don’t worry. The Americans chalk up an even sharper zinger later on.
Meanwhile, the helicopter quickly wins over the British. They believe that nothing flies in the air anymore because, as Quinn puts it, “That’s their territory.” But the thing still takes to the air – with a female pilot, no less.
Alex, played by Izabella Scorupco, is a level-headed pilot with a soft spot for Quinn from the moment she meets him.
The chemistry in this trio is excellent. Quinn and Van Zan have disdain for each other initially because of their nationalities, but the difference is amplified by their conflicting approaches to the dragon problem – while Quinn simply wants to weather the storm, Van Zan is set on making some thunder of his own. Alex comes in as a sort of shaky common ground between the two leaders. While she clearly favors Quinn romantically, she trusts and follows Van Zan because she knows his methods work.
The first time a dragon appears at the castle for Van Zan and his troops to fight, they go after it full force. But they almost fail. Quinn steps in only out of necessity, but he plays a pivotal role in the slaying – that is, he serves as bait. While Quinn lures the dragon over a ridge, Van Zan waits on the other side, looking to surprise the monster.
Then comes the key to this disastrous fiasco. Sure, the dragons have taken over and their numbers are growing, explains Van Zan. But their reproduction hinges on only one male “bull.” If they can bring together their rag-tag military arrangement and bring down the male, the human race will be saved. There’s only one hitch. Van Zan needs Quinn’s help and Quinn ain’t helping. Turns out the male dragon makes his home in London, at the same site where Quinn originally discovered him. And the place just carries too much emotional weight for Quinn.
Perhaps the biggest negative for Reign of Fire is simply that the movie isn’t long enough. The film could easily extend for another half-hour or 45 minutes and still hold most audiences’ attention. The effects are great, the dragons actually look real, and the sets are fantastic – who wouldn’t want more?
Any weakness in the film, such as the occasional corny line, can be overlooked and simply written off as part of the territory of an action flick. And that’s important because while Reign of Fire boasts some top-notch performances from seasoned actors, and involves one of the most creative premises in the past few years, it is still an action movie. Character development is strong, and the drama is given its due emphasis, but the film still requires a substantial amount of suspended disbelief. Remember that, and Reign of Fire is a joy. Forget it, and the beauty of this thing can easily be overlooked.