ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 18, 2002
Reign of Fire is one of the most intense and enjoyable monster flicks I’ve ever seen. It’s got throat-clutching suspense, pulse-pounding action, incredible-looking sets, deft direction, stunning cinematography, razor-sharp editing, rich production values, and terrifying creatures.
In other words, it ranks right up there with Alien and Aliens.
The charismatic and super-hunky Christian Bale—who’s undoubtedly destined for Tom Cruise–level stardom—portrays Quinn, a British fire chief circa 2022. His job doesn’t include saving futuristic kitties from trees, though; he’s responsible for warding off the fierce, highly intelligent, fire-breathing dragons that have laid waste to Earth over the past two decades.
It seems that 20 years earlier, Quinn’s mother, a construction engineer, inadvertently woke a huge dragon from its centuries-long slumber. As the terrified 12-year-old Quinn looked on, she paid the ultimate price, and now he’s obsessed with keeping the small community he leads from becoming a heap of smoking ash. Shades of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max character in The Road Warrior, but Quinn lacks the warrior spirit; he can’t see any possible way to defeat the dragons, so he’s content to just stay on the defensive and help his followers eke out an existence.
Not so Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), the psychotic leader of a group of well-armed American soldiers who’ve figured out a high-risk way to slay the winged monstrosities. It involves attracting them with “archangels”, fearless paratroopers who plummet from an army helicopter and try to outrace the beasts while luring them within range of Van Zan’s honkin’-big spear gun. During these rip-roaring skydive sequences—and several other times throughout the film—director Rob (The X-Files) Bowman proves himself a first-rate action choreographer in the same league as John Woo.
There are moments when Reign of Fire verges on the silly—most of them involving the cigar-chomping, head-butting Van Zan, an over-the-top cross between Patton and Attila the Hun—but you’re so swept up in the visual magic unfolding on-screen that these lapses hardly matter. One thing’s for sure: I’ll never picture Puff the Magic Dragon in the same light again.