Reign of Fire
4 stars
starring Matthew McConaughey, Chritian Bale and some badass dragons

by Stephen Notley

Out of the dragon movies we've seen before, it's best to forget Disney's Pete's Dragon and Sean Connery's forgettable Dragonheart. But let's remember the 1981 film Dragonslayer, which rocked for two reasons: A) the dragon was cool, and B) the dragon was mean.

Reign of Fire has cool, mean dragons. But these cool dragons aren't even the coolest part of the movie, which has so many other parts that work that you come out of it mildly dazed that you've actually seen --is it possible?-- a good dragon movie.

Full props must be awarded to director Rob Bowman (of X Files movie fame) for taking a premise doomed to be dumb --dragons vs. helicopters -- and making a tight, lean, focused movie that happens to kick dragon ass.

The year is 2020, dragons have reclaimed the Earth, and it's no joke. Everything's been burnt away, leaving a charred matchstick of a world. Tortured leader Quinn (Christian Bale) struggles to keep his little community alive in the scorched skeleton of an old castle, tending a little farm, hoping to make it to the next season. Along comes Van Sant (Matthew McConaughey), bringing with him an armored brigade and a burning need to kill dragons. Bale wants to hide, McConaughey wants to fight, and there's your dramatic conflict.

Reign of Fire takes the basic icons of dragonlore -- a lone castle, a shattered countryside, some mean-ass dragons-- and combines them with the remnants of our world -- tanks, helicopters, a generator here and there. It's the kind of reinvention that sounds great on paper but almost always gets crapped up by the time it hits the screen. This time, though, old and new mesh perfectly, all hard greys and ashy blacks, and we believe. Plus, there's just something about setting a dragon movie in England that immediately lends plausibility.

The key here is seriousness. There's no winking at the camera, no camp value. Everything's been burnt down, reduced to its essence, mankind trying to survive. We're spared the dumb love story and the incompetent idiot who screws things up, and all that's left is two strong men doing the best they can.

Bale and McConaughey make this thing work, two intense actors playing two intense roles, neither of them blinking for a second. Of the two, McConaughey  is the guy who walks away with the film, the guy you'd want to be. Van Sant is an instantly classic character, a hardened dragonslayer. We've got to believe he's the kind of man who's been surviving and fighting for twenty years, and from the moment he hops down from his tank, shaved head, hard body, no-bullshit attitude, he's real. He's an American soldier, but there's no American triumphalism here; America's gone just like everything else. He's a force in a world where man is next to nothing.

But Bale anchors the movie as Quinn. Best known for liking Huey Lewis and chopping up Jared Leto in American Psycho, Bale is a man who's been doing the best he can, trying like hell to keep his people alive. He's not looking to pick fights with dragons; he's got a crop to get in and kids to look after. As a guy in a terrible situation trying to survive, he's perfect.

Reign of Fire won't quite blow your ass off. There are some wicked scenes --sky-diving dragon chase, anyone?-- but it never quite explodes into total awesomeness. If one wants to nitpick, one can. Where do they get the fuel for their tanks and helicopters? How can the dragons eat ash for a living? But with Bale and McConaughey taking it serious, and the dragons looking so big and nasty and dangerous, flaming drool dribbling from their jaws, you just don't *want* to nitpick. Reign of Fire simply works, works well, tells its story and makes you care about the people instead of the special effects. It's a serious, small, cool movie, and you should see it.