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Fire-Breathing Dragons Make It Hot for Humans

Category: Reign of Fire Reviews
Article Date: July 12, 2002 | Publication: New York Times | Author: ELVIS MITCHELL

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The thought a picture like "Reign of Fire" provokes is that all of the wit the movie has may have been expended in its title. But for much of its running time, "Fire" is loads of fun. It has a jamming B-picture buzz — the kind of swift filmmaking and high spirits that have been missing from movies for a while.

The picture starts in contemporary London, when Quinn (Ben Thornton), a little boy who is visiting the construction site supervised by his mother (Alice Krige), crawls into an underground space that looks part catacomb and part bowel. Then he sees it: a dragon explodes from the depths, and the movie takes on a fairy-tale horror.

This opening scene has the impact of parts of "Bambi," and years later — in 2020, where the rest of the action takes place and dragons have taken over the world — the adult Quinn (Christian Bale) still has haunted, red-rimmed eyes. The red comes from guilt — he fears he may have let the genie out of the bottle — and lack of sleep.

Quinn is the daddy figure of a hideaway community, tucked deep inside a castle in Northumberton. He and a friend, the affable, open-faced Creedy (Gerard Butler), help keep the families safe. But when one of the real fathers, Eddie (David Kennedy), tries to steal away with his family, a dragon roars out of the thick, gray skies and pursues them. Quinn and his group, clothed in heavy-duty firefighter gear, try to effect a rescue.

Afterward, Quinn can't be angry — if he had kids, and not much of a future apparent from living in a fetid, overcrowded place, he might run off with them, too. But the battle has left the cautious Quinn and his charges shaken. So when the combative Yank, Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), arrives with tanks and his squad, Creedy mutters, "Only one thing worse than a dragon: Americans."

Van Zan and his band, who believe they can confront the dragons head-on and destroy them, seek to recruit Quinn's people in their cause. This poses a challenge to Quinn, who hopes that he can evade the monsters by waiting until they die out.

"Fire," which feels like a nightmare version of "Dungeons and Dragons," has a quick, horror-movie punch. It turns out that Van Zan is the worst possible Ugly American archetype. With his shaved head, tumbleweed beard clinging to his jaw and appliquι tattoos, he looks as if he's starring in a rough-trade prison musical. An action figure right out of the box, he's a literal and self-proclaimed dragon slayer who uses the unlighted cigar jammed into his mouth as the world's biggest tobacco chaw. And the gleam in his eye, evidence of his determination to bring down the dragons that "live on death" — the fire-breathing beasts consume ash — makes Van Zan a blood brother to Quint, the laughably obsessed Great White Hunter played by Robert Shaw in "Jaws."

So hyper-masculine he bounces into each shot with his legs wide open, Van Zan is such a macho cartoon that even Major League baseball would test him for steroids. And Mr. McConaughey's gift for extremes serves him well: he scores best as either laid-back trailer trash in movies like "Dazed and Confused" or here as a good ol' boy Ahab.

When Quinn's people celebrate after Van Zan's troop has taken down a dragon, the coiled, surly Van Zan will have none of it. "We might just get somewhere in about 320 years," he snarls about the numbers still ahead, contemptuous of Quinn's more patient tactics. It probably takes all the restraint Van Zan's low-key helicopter pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco) can muster to keep from rolling her eyes at his bluster.

There are enough genre-picture pleasures to make us think that "Reign of Fire," which opens today nationwide, isn't a fluke. There's a sweet moment in which Quinn and Creedy stage a play that's lifted right out of "The Empire Strikes Back," and the audience of very young children is wide-eyed with shock and happiness. (When one of the kids asks if he made the story up, the smiling Quinn responds, "Yes." It's part humble joke and a minor poke at copyright infringement.)

The solid cast, including Scott James Moutter as Jared, the boy Quinn has taken in, works hard. The cherries atop the sundae are Mr. McConaughey's baleful zealotry and Mr. Bale's haunted decency. The director, Rob Bowman, displays the nimble hand that made him an ace on a score of television pilots before he moved in to handle many "X Files" episodes and the feature film version of the series. (He's fortunate to have a team on "Fire" that includes the production designer Wolf Kroeger and Ridley Scott's cinematographer Adrian Biddle; their England is thick with heavy, ashen clouds.)

The movie is ingratiating and loose — mythology on the run — for a good spell. The final fight against the original dragon, who has spawned all the others, has to take place in London, where Quinn hasn't returned since he first spotted the scaly terrors. But for all its sprightly touches, the picture finally runs out of notions. We're worn down by its failure of imagination, too — the post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" future and the undistinguished computer graphic imagery that makes many of the early dragons look the same, like extras in a video game.

I presume that most of the special-effects budget was saved for the last, giant dragon, which has beat-up wings; it's endured many a skirmish. So much has been lifted from other sources — the desolation looks borrowed from "Terminator 2" — that you want the movie to take on a life of its own and make use of the British setting, home of the dragon myth.

But not enough is made of the ultimate battle in London; it could be anywhere. (And it's too bad that in this thin version of London all that's left of the human race is whiter than the demographic for melodramas on the WB channel.) The movie might have been a minor classic if it had maximized its own possibilities. But until the rush wears off, the picture is as much fun as a great run at a slot machine: even when your luck runs out, you're losing only pocket change.

"Reign of Fire" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for flaming, fast-paced action, a few burned-to-cinders corpses and the kind of strong language that action heroes are given to sputter.


Directed by Rob Bowman; written by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg, based on a story by Mr. Chabot and Mr. Peterka; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Thom Noble; music by Edward Shearmur; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; released by Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment. Running time: 109 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.


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