There’s nothing quite more frustrating to a lover of crazy blockbuster cinema than a mouthwatering concept that isn’t quite executed as well as you’d hoped. You sit there as the movie starts, convinced you’re about to see some awesome shit and when just you expect the story shift into overdrive you find to your dismay that it can’t… quite… get… there…. and the whole experience starts to feel like a car trying to grind it’s way up a steep hill in the wrong gear.
This, sadly, is a good way to describe the experience of watching Reign Of Fire, a movie I was desperately hoping would blow my socks off with the blazing force of a dragon’s sneeze. But while its set up is rock solid, it ultimately fails to capitalise on its kickass premise of an apocalyptic full scale war between the irresistible force of giant mythical beasts and the immovable object of Matthew McConaughey’s gargantuan performance.
The world is essentially a giant ash tray after a slumbering dragon was rudely awoken by tunneling work on the London Underground sometime at the start of the 21st century. Spawning like napalm spewing flies, the big leathery creatures eventually overran the globe, feeding on the ash created by using their searing halitosis to obliterate everything in their path and all mankind could do is get the hell out of their way.
Years later and Quinn – a man who witnessed the original dragon’s awakening as a young boy – struggles to keep a community alive in an England that looks like the inside of a smoker’s lung. Struggling to keep their crops hidden from a species that consumes every resource it can burn, tensions are turning high, but Quinn somehow manages to keep things together with his mate Creedy in this dystopian future that’s almost fully regressed back to medieval times (the time period, not the restaurant). However, rolling into their lives on a tank is the maniacal Denton Van Zan, the mega intense leader of the Kentucky Irregulars, a military group dedicated to slaying dragons with their needlessly over complicated method of nets, harpoon and suicidal skydivers. Van Zan has only stopped by Quinn’s castle community in Northumberland to stock up on supplies, ammo and cannon fodder with the intent to march on London and kill the only existing male dragon, thus ending the species.
After Quinn and Van Zan literally butt heads over the latter’s methods – between you and me, he’s a massive prick – the alpha dragon desides to settle their argument for them by spraying fire over everything like a winged, sprinkler of death.
Regrouping in the aftermath, Quinn, Van Zan and helicopter pilot Alex decide head into London to take out the big, leather bastard themselves hoping to use its own flammable biology against it. Good luck with that guys – fingers crossed, yeah?
I mentioned before that I found Reign Of Fire to be a tremendously missed opportunity and part of the reason for that is that it does so much right. The central idea of modern technology being used to combat monsters of myth is insanely potent one (just look at that fucking poster!) and while the apocalyptic landscape and the dragons themselves are well done, the movie simply hasn’t quite got the budget to make good on a idea that screams out to be as batshit crazy as it can be. So instead of waves of helicopters going into battle with screeching wyverns in the skyline above London, we get isolated scenes of Van Zan’s frankly idiotic plan of shooting nets at Dragons in mid-air while free falling like a meteor and a hugely stripped back finale which literally sees only three members of the cast participate and contains possibly the most hilarious plan B in fantasy cinema – Missed your shot with a C-4 tipped arrow? Not to worry, grab yourself a battle axe and just fucking hurl yourself off a building at it – done deal).
While the action is on a smaller scale than you would hope, the central performances strive to make up the difference as twin leads Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey go big with their opposed heroes. Bale goes rustic rasping out a rough London twang while sounding weirdly at times like Garth Marenghi just chain smoked box full of Newports after having his tonsils out, while McConaughey strides around calling everyone cowards and looking like Stone Cold Steve Austin with a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. However, it’s the kick in the fire pit the film needs to keep things moving between immolations and even though Goldeneye’s Izabella Scorupco’s is somewhat sidelined as Van Zan’s second in command, we get a fun appearance from an embryonic Gerard Butler years before he assumed his final form as the smirking front man of endless, fun, action garbage.
Even though he can’t quite bring the movie home in spite of – or probably because of – its immense promise, director Rob Bowman (probably most famous for banging out 34 episodes of The X-Files) still finds little moments here and there that makes the film tough to entirely abandon completely. One neat moment in particular sees Quinn and Creedy act out the “I am your father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back to a room full of enraptured children – which not only helps lighten a fairly heavy film, but is something I’d like to think would actually happen if a survivable apocalypse rocked our worlds.
Of course, Bale’s rumbling and McConaughey’s ranting will only get you so far in a movie about killer fucking dragons and even though I’ve already thrown in my two cent as to how they’re utilised, I have to concede that they do look fucking awesome. Dripping flammable saliva everywhere from their jaws and rocketing through the sky like the ungodly spawn of a bat and a fighter jet, they’re one of the better representations of dragons on screen – or technically a wyvern as it only has two legs, but hey, I’m not gonna quibble about something that doesn’t even exist.
An admirable swing and a miss, Reign Of Fire is still fun, despite falling way short of expectations but at the end of the day, these raging fire lizards only burn lukewarm.