What a gloriously stupid movie. Reign of Fire, from 2002, is about a post-apocalyptic near future in which dragons have been mistakenly awakened from a cave deep underneath London, and have turned the earth into a blackened ball of ash. A group of survivors, led by Quinn (Christian Bale), are eking out a meager existence in a ruined castle in Northumberland in the north of England, keeping their heads low and trying not to starve to death. They’ve reached a kind of perilous equilibrium, sure that as the dragons have burnt the surface of the planet to a crisp, it will only be a matter of time before the beasts all starve to death as well, and then rebuilding human civilization can begin. It’s a dangerous waiting game, between this meager group and the beasts, caught in a race to see which side can outlast the other. No side can hold out much longer, both heir to a land blackened and barren. The humans have pluck, and left alone, they may be the ones to survive, while the dragons, after all, are only animals.
But then, out of the morning mists an armored column of tanks and armored personnel carriers appears at their front gates, led by Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey). They announce themselves as the Kentucky Irregulars, a ragtag national guard unit that crossed the Atlantic in a salvaged C-130, come to England to pick a fight and rid the world of the dragon menace by killing the only bull dragon in existence, the father of all the millions that visited Revelation upon the peoples of the world. I assure you, dear viewer, this is no joke. This movie was actually made. I saw it in the theaters when it was released. And even then, I was impressed by how far this movie went, and how seriously it took itself. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about Reign of Fire. It’s played straight and serious. It had a large budget, and it wasn’t about to let one of the most ridiculous ideas ever put to film stop the roaring freight train of its epic tale.
This movie is big-budget schlock at its best. The story is outlandish and grandiose. It reaches far past normal human acceptance of story and plot, but that doesn’t matter. Most schlock falls under the low-budget, quick moneymaker variety; straight to video shit-fests; or overwrought action adventures seemingly designed by committee that have no clue what would make a good movie. Think of the insult to audiences and the art of filmmaking that was G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. That movie was insulting to the average moviegoer on a variety of levels, but it did have one of my favorite shitty movie scenes of all time, when large chunks of the polar ice cap, dislodged from the floes above, sank into the depths to crush Cobra’s undersea lair. That’s right, ice sank. That’s how stupid the big studios think we viewers are. They probably had tumblers of Pellegrino with ice sitting beside them during production, they probably even noticed them, ice floating on top, and didn’t seem to care they were violating one of the most obvious and prevalent aspects of a substance that humanity deals with all the damn time. Seriously, there are only two things ice does that the average person sees. It makes drinks cold, and it FLOATS. It always floats.
While Reign of Fire was utterly, totally ridiculous, only rarely did it subject viewers to such unfathomable daftness. In short, Reign of Fire is exactly what a big-budget shitty movie should be. Director Rob Bowman took care in his product, his designers created a bleak world for events to unfold (only one other movie I can think of bathed the production with so much ash, that being The Road), and Reign of Fire was about as enjoyable as something so idiotic could possibly be.
Just think about it. Dragons, roaming and scorching the earth in modern times. It’s a retooling of the alien invasion scenario akin to movies such as Independence Day, only in Reign of Fire, the enemies have come from the depths of our own world, disturbed from their slumber as their lair is breached by a London Underground capital improvements project. The rocks beneath us hold many secrets. Including the fossils of monsters. But these movie monsters are alive, hungry, and ready to wage war on the surface world.
Trouble ensues when the Americans show — a provocative presence that brings dragons and fire down on the tranquil confines of the Northumberland holdfast — and it becomes clear to the reluctant Quinn that he must join forces with the brigand Van Zan, leading to a climax in central London that shoehorned in one of the most ridiculous death scenes ever filmed. This moment alone is responsible for the most guffaws this movie produces.
Reign of Fire had some serious talent working in it. Gerard Butler was one of the players, in an early role before he hit stardom with 300. As for Bale, the man has always been a pro, bringing taut efficiency and an excellent, gravelly accent, to his performance. McConaughey was playing against type, portraying a shaky, unbalanced dystopian Captain Ahab. He went over the top, carrying a look on his face throughout as if he had just seen The Human Centipede for the first time, and it had shaken his world view. He was going for unbalanced, possibly insane, but it never let up. There was never a moment when he wasn’t so tense he could crush coal into diamonds with his pecs given the inclination. The performance became something all its own, and deserves to be seen and mocked. Hell, someone out there should make a drinking game out of his scenes. One shot for every time tears well in his eyes. Two shots for every time he close-talks with Bale while seeming to fight off his next bought of Tourette’s. The man was wound tight, is what I’m saying.
And who wouldn’t be? Humanity is on the brink in Reign of Fire. There would have to be people roaming around just as cracked as Van Zan, if this had happened for real. But try his best, Van Zan’s behavior is just too far gone to be credible. Oh, and did I mention it looked like McConaughey had done a few cycles of steroids to bone up for the role? The man looked like he could crush a car with his bare hands. Maybe his physical presence in the film was more appropriate than I realize, but it still made me laugh at how grave he was, and how close to he was to coming unhinged. It was so comical, though, that I couldn’t view it as anything less than parody. Sorry if you tried not to go for jest, Mr. McConaughey, but you were funny in this movie.
I do wish there were more dogs like this released. Big-budget absurdity with such gravitas is hard to come by. Mostly because those films usually bomb, but if a viewer can let themselves go, and appreciate what they are seeing, it should make for an entertaining evening, despite, or probably because of, how seriously it expects the viewer to take the idea that dragons have destroyed all the civilizations in the world in the 21st Century.
This was an easy call. This one was a grade-A dog, but I rarely get so much enjoyment out of a shitty movie. Piss off, Alien: Resurrection. Your winning streak is over. Reign of Fire is a better film than your joyless travesty.