Dragons have the best lines in "Reign of Fire," and they don't say a word. All they have to do is breathe.
Taking a year in post-production to come to life, the fire snorters in this futuristic story are admirable creatures, way more convincing than the puny humans arrayed against them. When they open their mouths, we pay attention, which is not necessarily the case with anyone else.
Set in your standard post-apocalyptic future, "Reign of Fire's" notion of what that catastrophe was is a novel one. As posited by Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka (who wrote the screenplay with Matt Greenberg), a race of dragons has been asleep under the earth for longer than the vampire Lestat, taking their ease after munching on just about everything edible on the planet. Accidentally awakened with hearty appetites in today's London, the dragons (as detailed in a clever "The End" issue of Time magazine used as a prologue) take about a decade to ravage the world. It's war between them and us and, as someone says, "only one species is getting out of this alive."
The film proper opens in a ruined castle in Northumberland in the year 2020, when humanity is at a low ebb and the world's remaining people, such as they are, have divided themselves into hunters and gatherers.
The chief gatherer is Quinn (Christian Bale), who as a boy had a hand in awakening the beast. His group of ragtag survivalists has no greater goal than to hang on and hope the dragons starve. Meanwhile, Quinn and second-in-command Creedy (an appealing Gerard Butler) put on amusing "Star Wars" dramatizations for the clan's kids.
Tank commander Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) has other ideas. A U.S. military man ("the only thing worse than dragons is Americans" is the feeling in the castle), he's an "I lead, you follow" kind of zealot whose eyes are so wide they seem to be held open by toothpicks.
Van Zan shows up brimming with notions about how to take the fight to the dragons, but Quinn is not so sure. Still, he can't take his eyes off Alex ("Vertical Limit's" Izabella Scorupco), Van Zan's ace helicopter pilot who just might be the last attractive blond on the planet.
Though "Reign of Fire's" concept of a humans-versus-dragons smackdown is a good one, the way it's worked out on screen is more silly than compelling. The script is of the pedestrian "we have paid a terrible price and now we have a chance to make a difference" variety, and Rob Bowman, who directed "The X-Files" movie and many TV episodes, is better at handling the computer-generated dragon than the film's fallible actors. Think Kevin Costner's "The Postman," not "Mad Max."
If Bale is simply unconvincing as the sporadically mighty Quinn, McConaughey is so excessive as super-macho Van Zan he seems like a graduate of Jon Voight's Anaconda School of Acting. Yes, he's bulked up and tattooed; yes, he chomps on a cigar and frequently snarls, "Lock and load"; but this character is about as threatening as a GQ model. With the world's very existence at stake, why the film has sent in the JV hero team is anyone's guess.
Still, no one but the performers' family and friends will be coming to "Reign of Fire" for the acting. It's the dragons, supervised by visual effects heads Richard Hoover and Dan DeLeeuw and animated by Disney's now-shuttered the Secret Lab, that carry the picture.
With enormous wingspans and nasty, lizard-like bodies, able to incinerate large areas and swallow humans in a single tasty gulp, the dragons are creatures of a certain creepy elegance as well as undeniable potency. Even lifeless, they command our respect; it's not every film that has a "dead dragon designed and built by" credit, and Artem Ltd. has certainly earned it. It's worth putting up with a lot of nonsense to see these compelling creatures do their worst.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense action violence. Times guidelines: The dragons are quite frightening.
'Reign of Fire'
Christian Bale ... Quinn
Matthew McConaughey ... Van Zan
Izabella Scorupco ... Alex
Gerard Butler ... Creedy
A Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment presentation, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director Rob Bowman. Producers Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum. Executive producer Jonathan Glickman. Screenplay Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg. Story Greg Chabot & Kevin Peterka. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle. Editor Thom Noble. Costumes Joan Bergin. Music Edward Shearmur. Production design Wolf Kroeger. Supervising art director Jonathan McKinstry. Set decorator Simon Wakefield. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In wide release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times