With its striking image of helicopters circling a flying dragon as it sets a cityscape ablaze and the accompanying tag line “Fight fire with fire,” obviously Touchstone Pictures was hoping to create an “‘Aliens’ with dragons” aura with its promotional campaign for “Reign of Fire.” Rob Bowman wishes his underwhelming yarn were even a hundredth as exciting as that film.
However, there’s nothing disappointing about the film’s main drawing card–those flying, fire-breathing dragons. The digitally-created beasts are indeed sights to behold; not only are they genuinely frightening, but completely convincing as actual living, breathing creatures. Ironically, however, the dragons are far more believable as living, breathing creatures than the cast of paper-thin human characters that populate the post-apocalyptic, dragon-overrun year 2020. Our ostensible hero is the rather dour Quinn (Christian Bale), the leader of a community in what remains of the English countryside; his blank, no-nonsense exterior hides his deep trauma: the memory of his mother’s years-ago death-by-dragon. Far more interesting, though perhaps not for the right reasons, is Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), the gung-ho Yank leader of a ragtag group of military types on the dragon hunt. Bald, buffed-up, and tattooed, McConaughey plays Van Zan way over the top, coming off as an amusingly hyper-rednecked parody of the classic All-American Alpha Male Action Hero.
Whether or not that was McConaughey’s intention or not, it provides the only dose of actual fun in this surprisingly lifeless monster movie. Much like how Izabella Scorupco is beautiful but not particularly interesting as Van Zan’s helicopter pilot/second-in-command, the action sequences in “Reign of Fire” are just action sequences, functional though hardly exceptional in any particular way aside from the dragon effects. It’s more or less all downhill after the chilling prologue that sets up Quinn and the reptile infestation of Earth (which is dismayingly covered in a montage of newspaper and magazine clippings), for there’s no sense of escalating danger or tension. People die, but they are less characters than they are glorified extras, and the delicious prospect of a mass confrontation with dragons (suggested by all the advertising, print or otherwise) is scuttled before it can even begin to take place. Perhaps the latter was an intentional cost-cutting decision, but it also robs the audience of what would have been the logical show-stopping payoff. The show indeed stops in “Reign of Fire,” but in a most literal and unsatisfying sense.