‘Reign of Fire’ and the Bipolar Express

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Reign of Fire

Written by Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka
Directed by Rob Bowman
UK, Ireland, USA; 2002

Batman, The Man With No Shirt, and a bunch of dragons walk into a post-apocalyptic bar. If not a decent joke, that should at least make for a solid movie, right? In the not-so-distant future, a British mining team drills too far into Earth’s core and awakens a nest of hibernating dragons, who proceed to thank all of humanity by killing everything in sight. Much of Reign of Fire plays out like an environmentalist’s nightmare: the planet is a scorched marble, billions are dead, and any remaining survivors have been reduced to disparate factions warring over land and dwindling resources.

Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale) heads one such faction from an old castle, vowing to defeat the winged beasts after one took his mother’s life — a sentence that might otherwise sound ludicrous in the hands of another creative team. But director Rob Bowman and a story from Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka ground an absurd premise inside real-world hazards and a little paleontological retconning. Reign of Fire’s Great Britain gets a medieval steampunk facelift, enhanced by beautifully composed shots and a bipolar color palette; Abercromby’s castle of operations glows with warm orange hues, while the ravaged outside world is nothing but ashen grey wasteland. Bowman mostly shies away from any big reveals of the dragons themselves, a decision as fortunate for hiding aging CGI as it is effective at bubbling up tension when those castle alarms sound.

Yet for all its atmospheric finesse and slow-burn pacing, Reign of Fire devolves into just another yee-haw action film when a tragically shirted Matthew McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan arrives at Castle Bale. With all the itnernal strife and the usual not-get-burned-alive-by-dragons thing, the Brits already have plenty to worry about. Yet Van Zan, complete with a parade of tanks and a brigade of American”Archangels,” drums up more trouble when he claims to be a full-fledged dragon hunter and then proceeds to prove just that with the help of Alex Jensen (Isabella Corupco of GoldenEye fame). The feat impresses Bale’s crew, to the point of busting out the booze and the Hendrix, but Bowman’s handling of the actual action whizzes by in a blurry flurry of cuts and half-baked Power Rangers radio banter.

Reign of Fire

Bowman, from his early days as a director on The X-Files, has always had a good feel for suspense, but when Van Zan shows that these dragons aren’t so scary, Reign of Fire is left to survive on straight action, an area in which the guy who birthed Elektra into the world is not so skilled. Reign of Fire benefits from contemplative character work and a cool doomsday scenario, but the tacked-on action feels like a gene splice from another movie. In a fairly dumb climax, our grubby dragon hunters seek out what is apparently the lone male beast of the entire species. Yes, this lost breed of dinosaur has persisted for millennia with a single sperm donor. Just like fish. The brash machismo and cliched resolution on display are enough to undo whatever good will Reign of Fire began with. It’s as if Spyglass Entertainment executives arrived on set with their bratty twelve year-olds and immediately bowed to their squeals of more guns and explosions. If Batman, The Man With No Shirt, and a bunch of dragons ever walk into the bar you’re at, put down the ale and run like hell.

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