Dragons are the ultimate little boy fantasy. Dinosaurs that fly and shoot fire, courageous knights armed only with sword and shield… what could be more exciting than that? Reign of Fire answers by taking dragons out of the middle ages and instead pitting them against modern man in a battle for the survival of the human race.
In the present-day, man unearths something deadly, a dragon that’s lain dormant underneath London for thousands of years. Little Quinn was there. Only he survived the initial London onslaught. 20 years later, dragons have multiplied to number in the millions having ravaged and scorched the earth, destroying civilization and almost all signs of life. Only a few humans still survive, holed up in castle-like fortresses, struggling to exist. Their only hope is to outlast the dragons, who having burnt the earth to a crisp, are beginning to starve. Quinn (Christian Bale), now grown leads a community of castle dwellers, who think they may very well be the last humans on earth. But their survival is jeopardized when an American named Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) appears leading a rag tag military unit, complete with tanks, choppers, and proudly bearing the name of Dragon Slayers. Van Zan is headed to London. He's discovered that the dragons have a weakness. There is only one male, the original which Quinn encountered nearly 20 earlier. Kill the male and the species dies.
Reign of Fire gets high marks for high-concept. Few other dragon movies have had the kind of ambition and sense of style that this one does. The dragons themselves are quite simply shocking. Terrifyingly beautiful! Monstrous beings like airborne serpents spitting fire in massive gouts of interminable heat and desolation from their hard scaled heads. Seeing hordes of dragons soaring across the burning London skyline in a horrendous dance of death and destruction is in itself well worth the ticket price.
Yes, Reign of Fire is a gorgeous movie. There’s heart pumping excitement to be had watching a REAL looking dragon hovering over a military convoy in the darkness of night spewing tremendous gouts of flame down upon desperate soldiers... scenes like that have burned their way into my mind permanently, so awe inspiring is their power. But I need more! These are all just flashes, glimpses of dragons and the hideous destruction they have wrought. It's not enough! Most of the film consists of humans scrabbling about in the wastelands in terror. Effective, intense, well done. But when the dragons DO appear, I wanted Reign of Fire to go all the way and REALLY let us see these beauties in hot breath action. Most of the dragon shots are cut up into flashes and glimpses as the beasts swoop in and out of frames. Even in the final confrontation, where we at last see one of the monsters up close and personal... we only see one, in a city filled with hundreds of dragons. There could have been MORE. Show me the full score! Show me dragons destroying the Earth! Show me the chaos that created the apocalyptic world humanity is now force to inhabit!
But then, Reign of Fire really isn't about dragons. It's about survival and struggle when facing the annihilation of your entire race. Well, most of the film is about that, then the last 10 minutes is all dragons and we forget about the “struggle to survive” angle. Before those ten minutes though, Reign of Fire does a wonderful job of depicting the development of a society whose lives revolve around running, hiding, and watching the skies in terror.
Still, I say give me more dragons! ROF does such an eye popping job on these massive creations, such drooling beautiful work making them move, fly, spew flame and terror across the landscape that it is impossible to get enough. The few meager helpings of furnace blasting fury we are given are medievally mind blasting, there just needs to be more! Note to George Lucas: THESE are good special effects. This isn't some crap ass cgi-fest, this is brain burning and unbelievably done right.
Visuals and built up anticipation carry the film around a motley crew of entertaining and well thought out characters, yet inconsistent dialogue. Any film in which the final line is "thank god for evolution" is already flaming, with or without dragons. Fortunately, that kind of hack cheesiness seems to only creep in towards the end of the film, when ROF starts rushing about reducing what could have been a heart-stopping end-sequence into a series of easy co-incidences and trumped up, show-down encounters with the "king of all dragons."
McConaughey and Bale play it up nicely, in what could have been 2-dimensional dragon slaying roles. McConaughey's Van Zan in particular could have been cartoonish, coming off as a pumped up, over masculine, Sergeant Slaughter who may have fallen just a little bit over the edge. McConaughey however, makes him likeable... even deep. Yes, he walks around preening like a peacock, like some damn parody of every testosterone filled uber-soldier ever made. But watch McConaughey... look in his eyes. HEAR the emotion in his voice. There's something special, almost iconic about what McConaughey has done with what could have been a forgettable and flat character. Van Zan works nicely as a contrast to Bale's almost over-serious, yet earnest Quinn. By far the most dynamic character in the film, Quinn suffers loss after loss he struggles to help others survive, building society out of the ashes of a devestated earth. Watch him with his adopted kids... pay attention to the intensity that Bale throws into this character. He's believable. Understandable. Bale's character more than anything else gives Reign of Fire a heart.
Easy victories against impossible odds are the order of the day, but the dragons steal the show to breathe out a healthy helping of flaming movie fun, amidst a carefully constructed post-apocalyptic world. Don't bother if all you want is 90 minutes of pure cgi. Attack of the Clones is probably playing a few doors down. Reign of Fire is more than just dragons, it's about fear, it's about finding the human spirit. There's quite simply no denying that once seen, Reign of Fire is hard to forget.