Even though it's the year 2025, and flying, fire-breathing dragons have reduced all the pretty English countryside to so much burnt toast, the poor old occupied British at the heart of "Reign of Fire" haven't learned many lessons from history. They still inhabit a theme-park, faux-medieval world-castles, candles, wavy hair, kiddies in earthy rags and all. And they're still far too cynical, sensitive and depressed to do much in the way of actual, practical dragon-slaying. Enter the grizzly Matthew McConaughey, replete with shaved head and a rather disturbing collection of facial sores. In the guise of Denton Van Zan, a gutsy Kentucky militiaman who has put together a nice side business in shooting pesky dragons in their smoky guts, McConaughey is less than believable.
Precisely how this 21st Century freelance Gen. Patton has managed to shlepp all of his military hardware-including a chopper and a three-dimensional mapping device-across a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland to the one lousy Northumberland castle where a few Brits have managed to avoid the flying blow-torches is never fully explained.
With Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka's screenplay and a cheery disregard for credulity, "Reign of Fire" likes to be high-tech when it suits its need for action, and straight out of the Dark Ages when it comes to production design. Visual style here always trumps plot-even to the point of lighting up the castle for a cool party when there are dragons on the prowl. But we digress.
He may sound like a line of clothing, but Quinn Abercomby (Christian Bale) actually is the leader of the sardonic Brits. It was Quinn's mother, a London construction worker, who first released the malevolent dragon population, which goes on to survive armies, nukes and environmental snafus. Quinn advocates pacifism at first-sing a few songs with the children, think a bit, grow a few tomatoes and hope the dragons burn themselves out. Van Zan suggests offense is the only defense, regardless of collateral damage.
Rob Bowman's film is, of course, playing with parallels to the so-called Friendly Invasion of American GI's in the British hinterlands of the early 1940s. And since the movie's target market is on both sides of the Atlantic, the savvy "Reign of Fire" (note the royalist title) pokes fun in roughly equal measure at the archaic English customs that provoke Stateside condescension and the American Rambo mentality that often terrifies Europeans. Ultimately, it suggests that the two parties can work together, as if dragons were errant Middle Eastern terrorists assailable only by coalition forces.
Given Bowman's "X-Files" pedigree, "Reign of Fire" was expected to be formatively complex than is actually the case. It's a decent, fast-moving and visually powerful summer action romp for the teenage demographic-the dragons are deliciously evil critters, with a nice retro identity. But with McConaughey in an entirely irony-free zone and Bale reduced mainly to batting his sensitive eyelids, there's not enough intelligence, wit or innovation on the screen to attract and sustain an older crowd.
2 1/2 stars
"Reign of Fire"
Directed by Rob Bowman; written by Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka; photographed by Adrian Biddle; edited by Thom Noble; production designed by Wolf Kroeger; produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Derek Evans, Jonathan Glickman, Bruce Moriarty, Dean Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck and Richard D. Zanuck. A Touchstone Pictures release. Opens Friday, July 12. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating PG13 (intense, violent action).
Denton Van Zan--Matthew McConaughey
Christian Bale--Quinn Abercromby
Alex--Izabella Scorupco Creedy--Gerard Butler
Chris Jones is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times