**/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler
screenplay by Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg
directed by Rob Bowman
by Walter Chaw Opening concurrent to Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition, it occurs to me that both it and Reign of Fire are grim, shadowy elegies to lost ages that rely upon gloomy landscapes to convey deeper resonances their stories basic fail to provide. The surprising difference is that Rob Bowman's post-apocalyptic dragon opera actually has a cannier allegorical foundation. Where Road to Perdition is ultimately an empty broadside attempt at equating the semi-Rockwellian loss of innocence of a little boy to the semi-Rockwellian loss of innocence of the United States in the Twenties and Thirties, Reign of Fire appears to be a story of the Blitz and the first days of American involvement in WWII. The French even make a cameo to try to claim a little piece of "Berlin" during the otherwise incomprehensible epilogue.
Quinn (almost "Quint," Christian Bale), as a child, witnesses his mother getting murdered by a dragon in the midst of overseeing the digging of a "chunnel," already suggesting the foolhardiness of the bellum-Brits in trusting that the French would provide a buffer between they and Hitler's blitzkrieg. Indeed, upon being freed, the literal and proverbial dragon mysteriously spawns thousands of other dragons that wreak havoc on the major cities of the world, prompting ill-considered and faceless leaders to use nuclear weapons that eradicate most of mankind while leaving a large population of dragons unscathed. In ten minutes, Reign of Fire has already provided a (simplistic, yes) look at the British plight in the early years of the war in addition to offering a cautionary anti-nuke warning based on the theoretically ill-considered end of said war. Carrying it farther, the birth of a literal "Cold War" could potentially be read in the sterile chill of Reign of Fire's ashen world, standing at an uneasy détente in the years after "the early years."
Once grown, Quinn, now the leader of a small community of plucky Brits stowed away in a blasted keep, begins to lose faith in the possibility of survival for his isolated society, worn down by years of air raids and the gradual ("I've buried hundreds of people!") attrition of prolonged warfare. When all seems lost (an early harvest is obliterated by a hungry dragon), mad Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), the leader of a regiment of American--Kentuckian, to be precise--National Guardsmen who have been dropped into Manchester (and there are more tributes to the mighty 101st), make their way with greater numbers, greater resources (note Van Zan's benevolent doling out of a precious Granny Smith), and superior firepower to Quinn's castle--entering the fray, as is the Yanks' wont, at the eleventh hour.
The dragons, CGI clockworks that resurrect the wonderful beastie from Matthew Robbins's underestimated Dragonslayer (Van San's nickname is "Dragonslayer," natch), look fantastic, the weaknesses of digital imagery obscured to a large extent by Reign of Fire's misty environment. Bale's upper lip is Limey-stiff and McConaughey, continuing his winning streak (13 Conversations about One Thing, Frailty), turns in a tattooed, goateed, insane performance that crosses George C. Scott's Patton with Robert Duvall's Kilgore. Pastiches, sure, but the caricatures are not so much action movie archetypes as they are cultural, even propagandist, depictions of the WWII view of each country's ideal soldier type.
With an expertly edited skydiving sequence and a minimum of rootless sequences like Quinn's un-discussed discovery of an egg, Reign of Fire works fine as an action fantasy picture but infinitely better as an example of how genre films are best in the service of larger themes. If the larger theme of Reign of Fire boils down to something as generally unrevealing as "How the Brits and Yanks won WWII," so be it: the process of figuring out the moment the movie re-imagines the Battle of the Bulge with a bare-chested guardsman and a pike is more than worth the price of admission. Originally published: July 12, 2002.
by Bill Chambers Reign of Fire hits DVD in a package from Touchstone that fans of the film will probably wish had a little more meat on its bones. (I know this fan did.) One could scarcely ask for a better audio-visual presentation, however: the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, though compromised very occasionally by halos in high-contrast areas of the image, boasts of magnificent colour detail and intricate shadows. The Dolby Digital and even more thunderous DTS 5.1 mixes convince of the film's apocalyptic atmosphere; the soundfield is fully three-dimensional. Note that the British dialogue can sound mush-mouthed at times in the DD track. "Bonus Material" includes the 8-minute featurette (taken up for two minutes and twenty seconds by Reign of Fire's unabridged trailer) "Breathing Life Into the Terror," a collection of interviews lacking in substance with the film's effects designers; "Below the Line: If You Can't Take the Heat..." (15 mins.), a slow-moving compilation of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Dave Gaulthier, the practical F/X supervisor who handled the on-set pyrotechnics, arriving in Ireland with only two weeks' preparation and leaving the country having used up eight tons of their propane; "Conversations with Rob Bowman" (12 mins.), wherein the Reign of Fire/veteran "X Files" director breezes through topics with little regard for what he's saying--as much as I enjoyed Reign of Fire, Bowman's suggestions that he's an A-list director and that the picture is a scarefest are both, shall we say, debatable; and trailers for Reign of Fire, The Count of Monte Cristo, Bad Company, and the videogames "Reign of Fire" and "Kingdom Hearts" (that one with all the Disney characters). Inserting the DVD into a ROM drive enables one to "register" the disc and sign up for Buena Vista Home Entertainment promotions present and future. Originally published: November 10, 2002.