Don’t you hate films whose ambitions exceed their reach? Here’s a movie with a million dollar high concept: use the latest technology in special effects and computer generated imagery to create the most impressive dragons we’ve ever seen on screen, but instead of putting them into the usual context of medieval hills and castles, smack them right into the 21st century opposite army tanks, Black Hawk helicopters and machine guns! This was more than enough to get my black ass into a seat on opening day, expecting a wildly entertaining summer romp.
Unfortunately, the actual movie fails to do justice to its premise. Sure, the dragons look amazing, and the fiery devastation they cause everywhere can be stunning, but the filmmakers seem to lack the most elementary skills at generating thrills. After a long scene introducing Quinn (the kid who’ll grow up to be the character played by Christian Bale) as he discovers a dragon in a London mine, we jump forward to twenty years later. We’re quickly told that dragons are not mythical, that they wiped out the dinosaurs then lay dormant… until now. In the two decades years that have been skipped, almost all of mankind has been decimated and the world has been turned to ashes by the millions of dragons spawned by the alpha male Quinn encountered.
Even though we’re disappointed that the movie didn’t show us the destructive rampage the dragons embarked on, there’s still hope at that point that we’re in for major post-apocalyptic mayhem. Sadly, what follows is rather small-scaled and pedestrian. This should be an epic, with the remains of mankind banding together against the fire-breathing menace. Instead, we get a boy seeking the beast that killed his mommy, and it ends up being “a few-against-one” instead of the full-on warfare I expected.
Most of the people on screen are interchangeable British survivors (even Bale is dull), but one truly memorable character is finally brought in: Van Zan! Played enjoyably over the top by a bald, bearded, surprisingly buff Matthew McConaughey, Van Zan is an utterly bad-ass cigar-chewing American leading a pack of former National Guard soldiers turned dragon slayers. Yet as kick-ass cool as Van Zan is, we never really see him get down to business until the last five minutes, and even then it’s too little too late.
This is the major problem of “Reign of Fire”, how promising ideas are brought in then dismissed without payoff. All the cool, expensive stuff they put in the movie kind of just lies there. There is in fact only one helicopter, and it’s only for transportation, almost never sharing screen with the dragons. Likewise, the tanks never even fire, they just roll by for a few minutes in one scene then seem to be forgotten. The whole film and the dragons in particular look great, but the story that supports them is totally uninteresting and the action scenes are sparse and not very unexciting. This is “Waterworld” all over again.