Reign of Fire, Reviewed by Falstaff
Post-apocalyptic fantasy. A strange idea, but one that works in this interesting little genre-busting movie about dragons and dragonslayers.
On first look, this movie looks like your typical post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. The world has been scorched by dragons, which have been released from deep underneath London completely by accident. All major cities have been burned to ash and rubble, and the few human survivors live practically underground, in constant fear of the marauding dragons. It’s kind of like The Road Warrior, but with dragons instead of leather-wearing, blood-hungry bandits. However, this movie has some rather surprising fantasy elements in it (besides the fire-breathing behemoths).
Christian Bale is well cast as Quinn Abercromby, the leader of a small community of survivors in England. Quinn also happens to be the son of one of the engineers that unwittingly put the dragons back onto the top of the food chain. Matthew McConaughey does an incredible job as Denton Van Zan, the leader of the “Kentucky Irregulars” – a small band of Americans who have come to England to hunt down the sole male dragon, which they believe lives in London. Quinn and Van Zan are both capable leaders, but each has different approaches to the dragon problem. While Quinn wants to hole up and wait for the dragons to die off, Van Zan has a much more proactive approach.
One of the more interesting aspects of the movie (and one that makes Reign of Fire more fantasy than sci-fi) is the medieval imagery that pervades the movie. Van Zan conjures up images of a roving barbarian warrior – besides having a shaved head and being heavily tattooed, McConaughey (who beefed up considerably for this movie) has mastered the menacing, brutal glare of a fearless, almost maniacal warrior. He wears a vest-jacket with a thick collar that is reminiscent of a breastplate, and carries a massive battleaxe on his back. When Van Zan calls himself a dragonslayer, you have no choice but to believe it.
Quinn on the other hand, is more reminiscent of a knight. Besides having the slightly shaggy hair and beard that often characterizes a knight in movies, and the more slender (but still muscular) figure of a classical knight, Quinn wears a very interesting sweater. This black sweater is thick with a large weave that looks very much like a mail shirt. (Actually, it looks exactly like the mail shirt that Antonio Banderas wears in 13th Warrior.) The silver patch on the shoulder further adds to the imagery of armor. Quinn rides a horse (as opposed to Van Zan’s tank), and there is a spectacular scene early in the movie where Quinn uses himself as bait for a dragon – riding at full speed away from the maw of the beast. Quinn is very knightly – worried about the people that he leads and their welfare above all else. As well, the community that he leads lives in a ruin that is very reminiscent of a castle – complete with a keep, walls, and a portcullis.
Other medieval imagery includes the hawk used to sight incoming dragons, a burial pyre in a cemetery filled with makeshift Celtic-style crucifixes, and the ending battle scene, which (avoiding spoilers) involves some crossbows and Van Zan’s battleaxe.
The dragons are something particularly cool to see. Although there are few close-ups, and in general the dragons are moving very quickly or are in the distance, obscured by mist and smoke, they are well designed (even if the animation is hard to judge). The designers apparently took great care in designing something that was unlike any dragons seen in other movies, but enough like a “standard dragon” that there are no “what were these guys thinking when they drew this” moments. Seeing these creatures in flight is quite possibly one of the highlights of the film.
There are also a few rather funny or enjoyable moments in the film, one in particular involving a short scene from The Empire Strikes Back.
Thankfully, technology is mostly ignored in the movie – only one sequence involves any gadgetry at all – really cementing the movie’s place as fantasy rather than sci-fi.
Unfortunately, the storyline is fairly standard for post-apocalyptic movies – two leaders clash and then come together, and humans win out in the end. The ideas about “how dragons work” are original and interesting, particularly the process for creating “natural napalm,” as it is called.
Despite the slightly weak and very predictable plot, this movie is not bad. If you can accept the explanations of how, why, and when for the dragons, then the movie can be a really enjoyable experience despite its rather typical plot. Although not a cinematic masterpiece, Reign of Fire is an exciting and fun movie that hearkens back to favorite ancient tales of knights and dragonslayers.