NOW PLAYING: Reign of Fire

Posted: Monday, July 15, 2002

It's got one heck of a premise, I'll give it that much. Big, scary, fire-breathing dragons appear after a prolonged period of hibernation and take over the world. It's up to a scrappy group of humans to take the world back. What could be better on a lazy summer afternoon?

Reign of Fire is one of those movies that's better than it has any right to be, but still isn't top of the heap by any stretch of the imagination. It leaves you with some pretty nagging questions at the end, but keeps close to the whole reason you came to the movie; i.e. dragons.

It is the year 2020. Twenty years previous, an underground construction crew disturbed the den of what turns out to be a very cranky dragon. This dragon in turn gives rise to others and soon there are millions. Civilization is, for all intents and purposes, wiped out. This is pretty standard plot set-up, but what impressed me was that they took the time to give the dragon's a relatively plausible back story. Apparently all the legends about dragons were true, but modern man's cynicism won through. More than that, scientists discover that much of what we assume about the fossil record and geologic history is false. Dragons burned the dinosaurs and caused the ice ages by choking the atmosphere with the ash left from their orgy of destruction. Then, when all the food was gone, the dragons went back into hiding until the earth replenished itself. This was a cycle that was repeated time and again throughout Earth's history. Now, in the 21st century, two men come together to fight the dragons and save the day. One, Quinn, played by Christian Bale, is the leader of a bedraggled group of survivors huddling together in an old British castle. The other is Van Zandt, played in scary ex-con-o'vision by Matthew McConaughey; a wandering American dragon-slayer with a small platoon of like-minded soldiers. Van Zandt and Quinn come to blows when he tries to conscript some of the locals for a head to head battle with the baddest dragon of them all, the lone male. But it's not the humans that you really want to see fighting.

What makes this movie fun is not the dialogue, which is either overly dramatic or unintelligible (Bale's garbled street-English needs subtitles). It's also not the acting, which, aside from McConaughey's over-the-top strongman routine, is not all that bad. Nor is it the writing or the cinematography or blah, blah, blah. It's the dragons, and while they are on screen you'll be glued to the edge of your seat. They are very cool. The effects people have really hit on something in this film. You see a lot of the dragons, but not really from very close up, except when they are dead or lying still on the ground. This strikes a happy medium between disappointingly dragonless movies like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and really lame dragon movies like Dragonheart. There are several exciting dragon battles and, for you dragon-enthusiasts out there, even a little bio-chemistry. "Two separate chemicals secreted in the mouth. When they come toge'er, BOOM. Na'eral napalm," Quinn barks. There's dragons chasing helicopters, dragons chasing skydivers, skydivers chasing dragons, and lots of fire-breathing. How can you beat that?

In the end, however, there were the aforementioned nagging questions. These may sound nit-picky, but I felt obliged to address them here because, to be honest, they're all I could think of all the way home. (1) Is it really feasible to believe that any species would have only one male? Yeah, I get it. They breed like fish where one male fertilizes thousands of eggs at a time. But one male, for the entire world? (2) Ok. So say they kill the one male. So what? There's still millions of dragons left to finish off the world. These dragons are tough, and I mean tough. Even nukes didn't kill them. I suppose they would no longer be able to breed, but who knows how long these flying reptiles live? Hell, a tortoise lives to be over a hundred. (3) And while we're on the subject, I would like to know what killed all the dragons in the past. The movie tells us that one dragon is awakened from slumber and that he (it's the "big bull") gives rise to millions of other dragons, implying that all the other past dragons are gone. Also, how'd he "give rise" anyway? Wait, I probably don't want to know.

Inconsistencies aside, Reign of Fire is a lot of fun. It is what it is. A well done, good old creature feature, the likes of which we hardly see anymore. I say keep 'em coming. I have high hopes for next week's Eight Legged Freaks, a self-mocking entry in the monster movie genre. If a movie is unselfconscious enough to have fun with it's silly premise and just lay on the carnage, more power to it. Reign of Fire won't be the king of any Oscar polls, but for a B-movie, it rules. Grade: B

Reign of Fire is rated PG-13 for violence and scary scenes.

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