`Reign of Fire' never ignites as Apocalypse Next

Dragon-slayer story mixes something old, something new

Movie Reviews

July 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The one scene that wins a huge response in the apocalyptic dragon movie Reign of Fire has nothing to do with flying serpents. It comes after the prologue, set in London, where a contemporary railroad construction engineer (Alice Krige) rouses a bull dragon who swiftly spreads his seed across the planet and sends hordes of she-dragons char-broiling and gobbling up all the Earth contains -- animal, vegetable and mineral.

The film jumps ahead to the year 2020, when the engineer's son, Quinn (Christian Bale), is struggling to hold together a castle enclave of survivors in Northumberland who may be the last human remnant in England. With his best friend and comrade-in-arms Creedy (Gerard Butler), Quinn assembles the children for a bedtime piece of story theater about a white knight suspiciously like Luke Skywalker and a black knight suspiciously like Darth Vader. Their performance enthralls and delights the kids, which makes it both moving and hilarious for the movie audience. But instead of being a precursor of pleasures to come, the amateur theatrics merely serve as a hook for a dour and unrelenting Darwinian struggle for survival. When it comes to humans and dragons, the Earth isn't big enough for the both of them.

Spewing separate chemicals from each nostril that together form napalm, the dragons reduced the dinosaurs and prehistoric Earth to ash and now threaten to do the same to humans and their world. (When done, the species simply hibernates until the planet replenishes itself.)

Quinn has taken a defensive posture, hoping to use firefighting rescue and prevention techniques to save his colony's citizens and food supply from the voracious beasts. To U.S. military-man Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), the only good defense is a better offense. With tattoos across his body and a stogie stuck in his mouth, he's like a cross between Captain Ahab and Sgt. Rock, with a bit of Quint from Jaws thrown in. He's flown to England with a mobile and air cavalry unit to track the bull down and kill it. He's figured out there's only one male -- you bring it down, the species crumbles.

Van Zan typically sends a three-man team of "archangels" up in a chopper (the fetching Izabella Scorupco is the pilot). One dives into the sky as bait; the others follow with mesh-works that they toss on the dragon's wings, grounding it and leaving it open to Van Zan's pulverizing firepower. Along with the usual parachutes, the skydivers possess webbed suits that unfold like bat wings.

Most of the fun of Reign of Fire comes from mixing antique and contemporary weapons in a future that combines past and present, the alien and the familiar. It's a pop compost out of the old Hawkman superhero comic books. In fact, I'm fairly certain that either director Rob Bowman or one of his screenwriters (Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg) gave that mag a squeeze. After all, the cover of the first Hawkman revival, in 1961, featured Hawkman and Hawkgirl using maces to battle a dragon-like creature as it emerged from a tunnel.

What the movie lacks is any sustained comic-book or storybook flair. It has one or two fabulous images of the giant firebreather incinerating Quinn's castle. In a couple of scenes, the headiness of the concept overcomes the drabness of the execution -- such as Quinn racing from a dragon on horseback, as a stand-in decoy for Van Zan and his troops. But there's too little follow-through on Van Zan's contention that the dragons maneuver well in daytime or nighttime but lose their bearings at twilight. Instead of gorgeous flame-outs in the magic hour, all we get is a dusty duel in the ruined streets of London, partially filmed from the dragon's point of view -- which turns humans into the equivalents of video-game figures on a low-resolution monitor.

After that Star Wars riff, director Bowman and company etch their human relationships with a heavy-handed shorthand. One touch and heartfelt look and we know that fly-gal Alex and Quinn will stumble into the sunset together.

The script gives the actors less of a chance than the dragons give to Homo sapiens. Both the comic lines -- "I'm your best friend and sometimes even I don't like you" -- and the more dramatic ones -- "Pity the country that needs heroes" -- are filched from the book of familiar quotations we all carry in our minds.

As loyal, jocular Creedy, Butler cheers up the proceedings, and Bale does his damndest to be haunted and chivalrous. McConaughey heaves and bellows through the sort of role Robert Shaw could have pulled off in his sleep. But the big male dragon has the only incendiary personality.

Reign of Fire

Starring Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey

Directed by Rob Bowman

Rated PG-13

Running time 105 minutes

Released by Touchstone/Disney

Sun score * *

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