Reign of Fire (2002)

D: Rob Bowman
S: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughy

Pretty decent action adventure shot mostly in Ireland; essentially Mad Max 2 with dragons. The film is set in a post apocalyptic England ravaged by the ancient fire breathing creatures. Not mythical after all, dragons, we learn, are parasitic predators whose hunger for ash led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and now they have been reawakened following millennia of slumber. The battle for dominance is short and decisive, and mostly transpires via newspaper headlines shown over the opening credits. The action begins many years later, when the few human survivors now live in scattered rackshackle communities. One such group of people is led by Christian Bale (American Psycho), the son of a subway engineer whose digging unearthed the dragons in the first place. Bale's plan is to outlive the beasts and rebuild when they have gone back into hibernation. In the meantime he tries to protect his extended family as his mother tried to protect him. A hitch in this plan begins with the arrival of gruff American dragonslayer Matthew McConaughy (Contact), whose strategy is exactly the opposite of Bale's. In true Jaws style, his plan is go straight to the source and wipe out the leader, a mano-y-mano competition which will restore peace to the world. The stage is set for a classic clash of values alongside the obvious clash with the beasties and for a big effects-driven showdown which doesn't disappoint although it never soars either.

Reign of Fire is an entertaining variant on a familiar formula. It is essentially a tale of settlers vs. gunmen on the frontier of civilisation. It may have dragons, tanks, and helicopters, but the story follows pretty much the same dynamic as countless American westerns. It even clues us in to its generic heritage with McConaughy's Southern accent, scenes of its hero on horseback riding and, in case you miss it, a reference to the legendary Dalton gang. Further proof, if any were needed, that the film has little interest in the science-fiction/fantasy elements which overlay the basic plot is the lack of consistent detail. It is full of loopholes and gives insufficient explanation of basic facts. Luckily enough Reign of Fire spends little enough time trying to get its science sorted, so the film never descends into jargonistic exposition and never engages its audience on that kind of level. "There's nothing magical about them. They're flesh and blood. You tear out their heart and you bring down the beast," growls McConaughy at one point. This pretty much sets the tone for the film's engagement with the issues of science and rationality ultimately all too central to Jurassic Park and its first sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park..

In some respects though the film suffers from this lack of commitment. It never delves very deeply into its world and never quite manages to achieve a consistent or convincing tone. The prominent presence of a group of children at the centre of the drama (the youngest members of Bale's community) suggests a predisposition to juvenile content, yet elements of the script touch on a more adult sense of social and personal tension. High-minded discourse about family, community, and ethics is woven through a by-the-numbers story of all-too rapidly mounting crisis, the end result of which is a standard generic structure. That said, there is plenty in the film to arouse interest and suggest all kinds of avenues for exploration. There are many small details about these characters and their world which one longs to have seen more time taken over, but the script is more eager to get to the big action scenes and keep them coming than it is to give a sense of an authentic world lived in harsh reality. As such the audience is quickly given the basics then sent on their merry way. In-jokes and asides ultimately become merely that. One particularly funny moment which raises questions of its own which are asked entirely for fun has two characters acting out scenes from twentieth century mythology for the entertainment of their youthful post-apocalyptic audience. This, along with many sardonic one-liners provided by Gerard Butler as Bale's Scottish sidekick/second-in-command provide wry smiles for the attuned which ultimately amount to too little.

Reign of Fire is no revelation, nor is it the most exciting genre film you're ever likely to see. It has a certain muscular abandon embodied in McConaughy's performance, and this can be fun if you are in the mood for it. If you don't find yourself laughing with appreciation within seconds of McConaughy's first growling, grunting, scenery-chewing appearance, then you're not going to enjoy the rest of it. If you can enjoy it, there is a good night's entertainment in the film, and maybe a soft spot in a fanboy's heart.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.