by DAVID KEYES
There is a great concept lost somewhere inside the ruckus
that is "Reign of Fire," struggling so hard to
materialize that its level of energy dwindles before the
first half hour is even finished. Sandwiched in a realm
when interesting myth clashes with modern society to result
in an apocalyptic future, the premise is as inspired and
distinctive as those in summer blockbusters come, compelling
and ironic and yet not too devious on the audience's intelligence.
And yet with all that promise backing the setup, a wall
of resistance is built that refuses to lead us to some kind
of worthwhile payoff. The movie is cold, miscalculated and
hollow, and aside from a few isolated scenes of genuine
excitement, it's also rather dreary.
The movie opens with a brief but effective prologue to
the nightmarish events that follow. In present-day London,
a curious and ambitious British 12-year-old named Quinn
descends deeply into an underground dig site, where his
mother is assisting some new subway project. When one of
the drills penetrates a cavern deep within the chasm, it
unleashes a creature so ancient and rare that history has
only written about as myth up to this time. In the wake
of its fiery awakening and escape from the cave, it destroys
everything that stands in its path... except for Quinn,
who becomes the soul surviving witness to this event.
20-something years after this awakening, mankind has fallen
mightily to the fire-breathing dominance of the dragon,
a species that in just a short time has reproduced enough
spawn to reclaim Earth as its own. Quinn (Christian Bale)
is now an older, wiser and cautious man, surviving in seclusion
with a team of nomads that attempt to retain a respectable
lifestyle despite their resulting limitations. In his experienced
eyes, what is left of humanity is to be cherished and protected
no matter what the consequences; retaliating against the
deadly enemy would essentially be suicide.
Enter the persona of Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey),
a self-proclaimed American hero who, along with an establishment
of buff and foreboding renegades from the Midwest, invade
Quinn's establishment with seemingly false hopes of reclaiming
the distinction of being Earth's dominant species. Quinn,
naturally, is unconvinced by the bloated ramblings of an
egotistical and eccentric war machine, but when Van Zan
and his fleet are able to take down a dragon with calculated
ease for everyone to see, the possibility is called into
Van Zan's solution, as it comes to light, is actually a
rather simple one: all they need to do is kill the source
of the relentless spawning of new fire-breathers, which
in this case, as it is with fish, is the male. As a result
of this undertaking, the species will eventually die off.
Simplicity in this situation, however, doesn't make up for
its implausibility--just how is this band of unlikely heroes
expected to take down a particular beast that apparently
no government was smart enough to? Just how do they know
the only male can be found in their vicinity? And what exactly
motivates them to believe that every problem is solved simply
by the slaughter of one male dragon (which may not even
be the only one)? The movie never sees the need to explain
any of this to the audience.
As a star vehicle, both Bale and McConaughey take the lion's
share of substance out of the screenplay, which is heavily
character-driven instead of being complete eye candy. Bale
is fairly tolerable as a cautious and caring survivor, but
McConaughey is over-the-top as the smarmy Van Zan, a man
who grinds his teeth, rebels against any opposition and
is disgusted when people celebrate the death of one single
dragon, especially when it cost his team some of its own
casualties. Luckily, Izabella Scorupco as Alex, Van Zan's
most trusted teammate, helps soften the ridges that is built
around the male figures of the picture.
In terms of style, "Reign of Fire" borrows the
majority of its flair from the likes of "Mad Max"
and "Waterworld," dressing characters is dark
and scathed costumes while stationing them on desolate landscapes.
The major discontent with this endeavor, alas, is how muddy
and indistinctive the visuals are compared to other apocalyptic
tales; when we aren't being enticed with the dragons themselves
(who appear quickly and distantly most of the time), we're
being thrown into murky shots with lots of smoke, fire,
shadows and fog that do nothing to spur the eye's interest.
In fact, it's rather frustrating watching most of this unfold;
you feel detached and abandoned by the imagery, which lacks
identity and is almost shoddy enough to be compared to standard
computer game graphics.
There is, thankfully, some merit to speak of here. Aside
from the initial foundation of the movie (which could easily
be made into countless worthwhile action films), the screenplay
does a fairly good job with linking this fantasy with reality,
especially during scenes such as the one when Quinn acts
out a climactic scene from "The Empire Strikes Back"
in front of little kids who have no knowledge of the newly-distant
"Star Wars" phenomenon. Furthermore, the movie
doesn't try to take itself too seriously, often resorting
to slight humor as a gimmick to help relieve tension in
the atmosphere. Brief strokes of luck like this, sadly,
are sidelined by a story and pace that are uninterested
in delivering a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps the idea
of putting dragons into a summer action movie was all that
the filmmakers had on their mind.