A precocious 12-year-old boy (Ben Thornton) in present-day London is visiting his mother (Alice Krige) while she works underground with a construction crew. What he awakens while investigating one of the tunnels they have discovered is a giant, fire-breathing dragon that has laid dormant for thousands of centuries. Thus begins "Reign of Fire," which opens with such a startling and truly frightening bang that it comes as a tremendous disappointment when, 100 minutes later, the film ends with a half-hearted whimper. Credit director Rob Bowman (1998's "The X-Files") for treating the subject of destructive dragons with a rare seriousness unusually found in the genre. Discredit Bowman for apparently using up most of his effective scare tactics and filmmaking energy in the first ten minutes alone.
As the opening credits run, we are caught up to speed with the fate of the world following this catastrophic find. Entire cities are destroyed as the dragons breed, and the human population is whittled down to nearly nothing. Switch forward to 2020, where the young boynow the adult Quinn (Christian Bale)has become the leader of a refugee settlement. While the group spend their days playing it safe and using stringent precautions against any dragon invasions, this changes for Quinn with the appearance of hard-core zealot Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), head of an American military team. Van Zan is determined to stop the dragons and attempt a repair of their home. In order to do this, however, they must head back into the ruins of London to find the sole male dragon. If they can destroy him, it will mean the extinction of further life for the species.
The premise of "Reign of Fire" is an exciting one that, ultimately, does not translate into an exciting film. Using top-notch CGI far more seamlessly believable than in other recent films, such as "Spider-Man
" and "Attack of the Clones
," the dragons come to life in a very palpable way that blends well with the actors onscreen. Unfortunately, this is a case when the budget of a picture clearly was not expandable enough to withhold such an ambitious story. While the visual effects are awe-inspiring, there aren't enough of them. The dragons only appear in five extended sequences, leaving the remaining 70 minutes up to the human actors to make engaging. Endless expositional and "character-building" scenes drone on and on, significantly pulling the pace of the film to a crawl. Even then, we still never gain true insight into who the lead characters really are as people. The screenplay, by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka, and Matt Greenberg, should be dealt the majority of the blame, as precious little dialogue of interest is offered up.
Try as they might, Christian Bale (2000's "American Psycho") and Matthew McConaughey (2002's "Frailty
" and "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
") give stiff portrayals of one-dimensional characters. Bale's Quinn is presented as a heroic figure, but Bale solemnly broods and sulks his way through his scenes. McConaughey goes in the opposite direction; his over-the-top turn as the extremist Van Zan may elicit a certain amount of showiness, but he remains a bland figure whom the viewer can never quite figure out. As Alex, the token female on Van Zan's side, Izabella Scorupco (2000's "Vertical Limit") is all pretty looks with nothing going on inside. In other words, she's a complete bore.
This leads us to the action set-pieces, which jump-start the film to life roughly every twenty minutes. While there is not a solitary moment that captures the fear and dread of the horrific prologue, a skydiving scene midway through in which they are chased by dragons in hot pursuit is an undeniable nail-biter. The climax set in London, meanwhile, lacks the scope and true horror of the situation to be a satisfying finale.
"Reign of Fire" valiantly attempts to add more substance than usual to a special effects actioner, but to no avail. Save for an ending scene in which the first sign of the world's modern reconstruction is glimpsed, such high-minded efforts either fall flat, or get lost amid the sound and fury. Likewise, there are so many glaring plot holes that it eventually becomes too tedious bothering to take anything seriously. Because the opening moments hold so much promise, the remainder of "Reign of Fire" is all the more disappointing.
©2002 by Dustin Putman