Fight fire with fire.
Every summer there is at least one big-budget box office film that's a total and complete bomb. Apparently, the summer of 2002's was the Matthew McConaughey/Christian Bale action flick Reign of Fire. As is the case with many Hollywood bombs, the poster for Reign of Fire looked promising—dragons attacking London while helicopters diligently fired back. Alas, the promise of this wonderful poster wasn't meant to be—Reign of Fire did a nose-dive and tanked at the box office. The film is now out on DVD for a second spin and a second chance to breathe fire…err, I mean life…into viewer's TV sets.
Facts of the Case
It is the present day and a London tunneling project has gone horribly wrong after the workers come across a huge fire-breathing dragon underneath the city, waking it from its slumber to feed on all of humanity. In a short amount of time, dragons decimate not only London but the entire globe with ash and flame. Charring everything in their path and feeding for decades (we're officially about 20 years in the future now), the only hope humans has left includes a small band of survivors sheltered inside an enormous castle. Their leader is Quinn (Bale), a man whose mother was killed by the dragons when they were first discovered years ago. Slowly starving to death due to the small amount of food available each season, Quinn and his people think they may be the only living souls left. This theory changes with the arrival of an American named Van Zan (McConaughey) and his band of military dragon slayers. Arriving in tanks and helicopters, it seems that Van Zan has found a way to kill the dragons (something about the period between dusk and dawn called the "magic hour") and has figured out the secret to their survival. As Quinn and Van Zan struggle to lead, each man realizes that in the end only one—man or dragon—will live to be the dominant species!
Well, at least it ain't Dragonheart. While I knew going into Reign of Fire it was more action packed and less kid-friendly than that dud, I was pleased to see not one talking dragon during the whole film. No Dennis Quaid, no annoying Sean Connery voice, no cutesy winged reptiles. Nada.
I initially saw Reign of Fire in the theaters with much hope and excitement. While I was looking forward to Spider-Man and interested in seeing Eight Legged Freaks, for some reason Reign of Fire was summer movie that really grabbed my attention. I just thought that the idea of dragons vs. modern day man was really cool. Alas, while Reign of Fire was a somewhat entertaining potboiler, it doesn't fully deliver when push came to shove.
Aside of the obvious plot holes—which I won't divulge here as they're far too much fun to spot on your own—one of the film's major flaws was that too much of the action took place on the ground (and even then there wasn't enough of it). Listen, the whole reason I went to see this movie was to witness big old battles in the sky against dragons and machines. While there was one scene with a helicopter and a dragon, it lasted only mere moments and then shifted back to the earth. In fact, this seemed to be my biggest gripe with Reign of Fire—the scenes featuring the dragons only lasted long enough to whet your appetite. Of course, I'm not spoiling anything by divulging that there's a big showdown at the end of the film with one of the dragons, though even that was somewhat of a letdown; too little, too late. Reign of Fire feels as if the filmmakers had an ample budget, but not that that ample—there aren't enough fights with the titular beasties.
And then I saw Reign of Fire again on DVD. In the passing three or four months since I saw it in theaters something happened—Reign of Fire had apparently grown on me. Granted, it still wasn't a great slam-bang action flick. But in its own way, it is kinda fun, sometimes exciting ride with Matthew McConaughey pulling off an insane performance that rivals that of his previous take-the-cake work in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Bald-headed with a cigar butt perpetually dangling from his lips, McConaughey looks as if he's going to go postal within the next five seconds every minute of the film. On the other end of the spectrum is Christian Bale's performance—while he has his moments of anger, generally he's subdued when compared to McConaughey's wacky Van Zan. Where's his American Psycho character when you need him? Of course, no action movie would be complete without the hardened female—this time around it's Izabella Scorupco (Vertical Limit) as Alex, Van Zan's trusty right-hand woman. Apparently in the future women will still look amazingly sexy, even during the impending dragon apocalypse (this is further proof that those damn Mary Kay cosmetics representatives will survive along with the cockroaches, no matter what).
The special effects and action sequences are all top-notch, though like my previous complaint, I think there should have been far more of them. There are a few neat shots of the dragons climbing castles and swooping down for attacks. Maybe in the sequel, we'll get to see this film from the dragons' perspective—Reign of Fire 2: Sympathy for the Devil, anyone? Reign of Fire is mindless entertainment that will briefly satisfy most action connoisseurs. Marshmallows not included.
Reign of Fire is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is very good with sharp black levels and solid colors throughout. Because Reign of Fire is a dark film, the image often sports less detail and a small amount of softness. The picture is made up predominantly of grays and blues due to the apocalyptic nature of the dragons—as such, this often looks like a grimy film. Otherwise, this is a nice looking transfer on any television set.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, as well as DTS 5.1 Surround, both in English. Both of these tracks sound full and bombastic with raging effects swirling around the viewer. If there are any minor imperfections among each track it was hard to tell—both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS track sucked me in completely. The front and rear speakers are used generously without any excessive hiss or distortion in the mix. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles, as well as a Dolby 5.1 mix in French.
It will come to no surprise when I tell you Buena Vista hasn't included a ton of supplemental materials on this disc. Since Reign of Fire wasn't the smash hit Buena Vista had hoped for, this DVD only includes a few extra features. The first is "Breathing Life into the Terror," a less than ten-minute look behind the scenes at the CGI work on the film by the effects people at The Secret Lab. This standard featurette adds only a small amount to one's knowledge of the film and its production (interviews, film clips, et cetera). The far better featurette "If You Can't Stand The Heat" takes a probing eye at the pyrotechnic work on the film. Tons of liquid propane and other combustible materials were used during the making of Reign of Fire, and this 15-minute short is worth your time if you want to find out how some of those spectacular fire stunts were achieved.
Finally there is a short "Conversation with Director Rob Bowman" in which the director talks about his influences, the dragons, and other aspects of the film, an original non-anamorphic theatrical trailer for the film, and non-anamorphic trailers for the films Bad Company, The Count Of Monte Cristo, and two video games (one of which is Reign of Fire).
Reign of Fire works well as a weekend rental with a bag of chips and a bunch of buddies. I can't really recommend it as a purchase (unless you can find it used or really cheap), but it is worth the rental fee. Buena Vista's work on this disc is mild, if apt—the audio and video portions are good and to be honest I didn't need any more extras than were already included.
Reign of Fire acquitted on most charges, but guilty of having more promise than what ended up on the screen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• "Breathing Fire into the Terror" Featurette
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