Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) reacts to the dragon's latest attack in Buena Vista Pictures' "Reign of Fire."
PATRICK DOWLING / Associated Press
Enter the dragons
`Reign of Fire' spices monster movie formula with a flicker of action-adventure
"Reign of Fire" is a dark and effective action-adventure thriller that takes for its premise that dragons are not only real, but that they lay low for centuries, reawakening at intervals to scourge the earth.
It seems they really breathe fire, and then consume the ash they create. They're the reason the dinosaurs vanished, and they're the reason for all those feverish ancient paintings of humans at the mercy of winged horrors. In "Reign of Fire," they come back in apocalyptic fashion in the beginning of the 21st Century, wiping out most of the earth's population.
All that backstory's disposed of in a couple of minutes, via montages and newspaper and magazine clippings, following a prologue in which a young boy's construction-engineer mother (veteran British actor Alice Krige) accidentally and lethally rouses a dormant dragon beneath London, leading to the aforementioned worldwide dragon plague.
Then the story shifts to an old castle in Northumberland, England, circa 2020, where the young boy has grown into Christian Bale. The character's name is Quinn, and he's the leader of a ragtag group of adults and children holed up in the old structure, trying to stay out of the dragons' way. His carefulness in avoiding the dragons goes out the window, however, when a military group, complete with armored vehicles and helicopter, shows up on Quinn's doorstep.
"Only one thing worse than dragons," observes Creedy (Gerard Butler), Quinn's second-in-command, as the new crew rolls across the landscape. "Americans."
Leading the U.S. group is Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), with a big assist from copter pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco). And once the cautious Brit Quinn and the bellicose Yank Van Zan meet and get their horns-locking over with, it's time for the woefully overmatched humans to strike at the heart of the dragon problem.
A couple of things distinguish "Reign of Fire," and one is that director Rob Bowman (of "X-Files" fame) eschews throwing big handfuls of computer-generated monsters into the picture, preferring instead to focus on the individual dragons. (Yes, the television previews show a sky full of swooping dragons, but that lone dragon-laden scene lasts about as long in the movie as it does in the preview.)
By exploring the potential of individual confrontations with individual dragons, he succeeds where most others fail -- that is, he actually makes big monsters scary.
Bowman also keeps some interesting tensions going, not only between the two main characters (and, by inference, between arrogant saber-rattling America and its more reserved European allies) but also between the oppressive, near-Medieval aura reinforced by the gloomy settings and the dark quasi-classical soundtrack and the film's briskly paced and plentiful action scenes.
There are some nice little touches, including a staged re-enactment of a famous movie for the amusement of the castle's children, and a party scene utilizing Jimi Hendrix's classic rock tune "Fire" -- a nice break from the portent-of-doom orchestration that characterizes the rest of the movie's music.
Although Van Zan is a stereotype -- with his unlit cigar and menacing gaze, he's a kind of movie version of the comic books' Sergeant Rock or Sergeant Fury -- McConaughey invests him with energy and believability. It's by far the most striking performance in the picture, although Bale and Scorupco also have their moments.
"Reign of Fire" isn't a perfect picture. Look too closely at it, and you'll find a question or two that aren't satisfactorily answered by film's end. But it deserves high marks for not being quite like anything else -- for being, in fact, just different enough to impress.
John Wooley, World entertainment writer, can be reached at 581-8477 or via e-mail at email@example.com .
"Reign of Fire"
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale and Izabella Scorupco
Theaters: Palace 12, Eastland, Tulsa, Starworld 20, Owasso, Admiral Drive-in, Allred Pryor and Cinema 8 (Broken Arrow, Sand Springs)
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (violence, horror effects, language)
(on a scale of zero to four stars)