Coming upon a band of revelers—that is, a band of raggedy post-apocalyptic Brits dancing round a fire to ancient guitar-rock—the roughneck American Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) is furious. And he stomps down their merriment in a New York minute: “Envy the country that has heroes!” he roars. “I say, pity the country that needs ‘em.” Everyone stops everything. And you can see why: the guy is a sight, an earnestly angry, elaborately tattooed, bald-headed, cigar-chomping soldier, late of the “Kentucky irregulars.” Even more awesome, he’s mad that the British crew is celebrating his very own heroic act, namely, his slaying of a fire-breathing dragon earlier that day. Needless to say, the revelers are stunned and confused.
Unfortunately, this is only one of many confusing moments in Rob (The X-Files) Bowman’s Reign of Fire, as it holds that “countries” make any sense at all in this wholly devastated world, circa 2020. It’s true that the dragons are burning up everything—people, trees, buildings—because they eat ash (or, as Van Zan puts it, more poetically, “They feed on death!”). It’s true that Van Zan and his people have come across the pond, in search of the single Male Dragon’s lair in London (somehow, they’ve figured out that if they can only kill this one dragon, the hundreds of other girl-dragons that have been flying hither and thither, burning up the planet, will die out). It’s true too, that they have found brief respite with the British enclave, hiding from the dragons in an old castle in Northumberland. And it is, at last, also true that the British rag-taggers are not fond of Americans: “There’s only one thing worse than a dragon,” one sniffs, on seeing the tanks headed their way, “Americans!” Indeed. But really, since there are no cities, no populations, no substantial or sustainable food sources, no militias or banks or churches—well, it seems odd that anyone still imagines there are “countries” per se.
At the same time, it’s become abundantly clear that hurtful flying objects and cities on fire do tend to rally people to flags, national identifications, and hatred of others. And so, this reference to countries might make more sense than it first seems. It also might be understood as the film’s saving grace (assuming you’re feeling disposed to say it has one), in that it makes it seem remotely relevant to anyone paying to see it in 2002. In this context, the film might even press you to wonder about the concept of nations in a world and time so overdetermined, on a daily basis and to effects as often horrific as they are productive, by globalization. In Reign of Fire, the “global” issues are not commercial or economic, but they remain political, and certainly, about power, in a rudimentary way, and so, they are material, in several senses.
This point becomes clear in the conflict between Van Zan and the British leader, Quinn (Christian Bale, now bearded and still, these several years after American Psycho, spending serious time in the gym). As you learn well before Van Zan even comes on the scene, Quinn has a particular history with the dragons: as a child (played by Ben Thornton), he visits his engineer mom (Alice Krige) on a London construction site, where he stumbles on a slumbering monster. The thing lurches to life, breathes a lot of fire, and kills everyone except little Quinn. Poor kid. And poor you, as he’ll be having flashbacks, so you don’t forget the aesthetically grisly specifics of this scene.
Twenty years after (which you see rush by in a very convenient and silly montage, occasioned by Quinn flipping through a Time magazine, full of pictures and headlines about the hellish destruction of Europe), he’s got heavy-duty survivor’s guilt. This, in movie-shorthand psychology, explains why he’s so dogged about keeping his little band of folks “safe” (a relative concept, given that monsters can come swooping along to incinerate wide swathes of land at any moment), and rejects Van Zan’s invitation to join the rowdy Americans to go dragon-hunting.
While the dragons are simultaneously graceful and scary effects, you don’t really get the sense that they’ve been thought through as concepts. They’re “intelligent” because they make plans about how to track and kill humans. But they’re not “evil,” because really, all they want to do is eat to survive (and they’ve been around for-ever, being the basis for a new theory about what happened to the dinosaurs, namely, they burned everything and sent enough ash into the atmosphere to jumpstart the Ice Age; hence, their hibernation until little Quinn and the London construction workers woke them up). But this bizarre notion hardly drives the film to originality. It pays homage to Star Wars (this in a cute bit where Quinn acts out the “Luke I am your father” scene for an appreciative audience of kiddies) and rips off Mad Max and Godzilla movies, but can’t really get past the pastiche format to, oh, coherence.
Van Zan is not so well planned either. You don’t see his childhood suffering, though he tells a dark story in a throaty whisper, about how he killed his first dragon and so got that dragon’s tooth he wears around his neck. But he does make a lot of noise about his devotion to his “men,” some of whom are women, and most of whom he loses at an alarming rate. He is repeatedly referred to as an “American,” as if this gives reason for all his gung-ho-ness, rudeness, and harsh ‘tude. Since this is, essentially, a buddy movie, he brings along a girl (because you need a girl in a buddy movie, to prove the guys aren’t gay or anything). And so, his loyal, admiring, but also more generously inclined chopper pilot, Alex (Izabella Scorupco) serves as liaison between the guys, informing Quinn that Van Zan “doesn’t feel anything; it’s the only way he can do what he does.”
What he does, being the dragon-slayer, is slay dragons. Van Zan and company have come up with an ingenious, lunatic, and visually thrilling tactic for hunting these voracious, flying and humongous creatures, using a few jeeps with bazookas, a couple of tanks, and a single chopper (the rest of their hardware long since melted by dragon-breath). In one of the film’s several fx-action set pieces (the other involves Van Zan leaping off a turret with an axe in hand—you have to see it to believe it), you see that the self-designated “archangels” (including the film’s sole black character—perhaps the dragons have eaten all others) leap out of the helicopter as “bait,” shooting through the air for some time before opening their parachutes. They’re supposed to get the targeted dragon’s interest and lead her toward an appointed area where Van Zan waits, with well-aimed weapon. They say that once an archangel jumps out the chopper door, he has only 17 seconds before he smashes into the ground or gets gulped down and/or cremated by the dragon. Yucky.
Quinn and Van Zan argue a lot, and engage in one glorious mano-a-mano scene, where Quinn rips off his vest to reveal his amazing array of elegant, dragonish tattoos, making you wonder just when and how he had time to have this done. Eventually, of course, they do have to go to London to fight the Male Dragon, because, well, because that’s what they have to do. They take Alex along, which is fortunate, because here she brings the hilarity. As they look out over the city in flames, dragons flying everywhichway, she solemnly observes that the odds are against them: “It’s hundreds to three!” It’s hard not to notice that the three are very puny-looking humans, even if they do have some arrows with explosive tips.
But no matter. The dragons must be slayed. Or more accurately, all the girl-dragons must conveniently disappear for the duration of the scene wherein the Male Dragon must be slayed. There’s probably something to be said here about guys and competition and pointy weapons. But the film is, amazingly, less well focused than even that little line-up of ideas might make it sound.