If it's the month of July and you've got a choice between seeing a tasteful period drama starring Tom Hanks as a conflicted hit-man inundated by sheets of art-directed rain, or a flick about fire-breathing dragons who destroy the world, it's really a no-brainer. You proudly hold your head up high, look the ticket-seller directly in the eyes, and say with confidence, "One for Reign of Fire, please." There is no need to be ashamed. Even those purse-lipped moviegoers dutifully making their way to Road to Perdition would much rather see Matthew McConaughey burned alive and eaten by a giant lizardthey just aren't admitting it to themselves.
But there is another reason to celebrate Reign of Fire beyond the McConaughey flambé: It's a true b-movie that you can actually see in a theater. These days, b-movie plotlines have been transformed by the major studios into humongo-budget blockbusters with all-star casts. There once was a time when battling outer-space marauders was a job for John Agar; now the deed makes global superstars out of actors like Will Smith. So with all the deluxe, big-budget monsters, serial killers, and spaceships crowding theaters every summer, there's really no room left for small studios to get their threadbare creatures onto screens. To find real b-movies today you must look to your local movie-rental store where they end up in straight-to-video releases. Consequently, the quality of b-movies today has dropped to c- or d-levels because there's no point in really trying hard to make a good filmBlockbuster will take anything they're offered and you'll make the same profit whether it's great or awful. The days of a zero-budget b-movie like Detour or Cat People shoving its way into cinema history on the strength of its vision alone are mostly behind us.
The last really good b-movie to hit theaters was 2000's Pitch Black, a science fiction sleeper about nocturnal, alien bats with really sharp teeth. Despite its low budget, familiar plot, and cast of un-famous stars, it provided true thrills instead of just empty hype like most big-budget blockbusters. Reign of Fire aspires to that same level of pretension-free action but it doesn't quite hit all its marks. Sure, it's got giant lizards flapping through the air and a bald, tattooed McConaughey bugging his eyes out in a pleasing Dennis Hopper imitation, but it nevertheless takes itself a little too seriously to be big fun.
The story starts promisingly enough, though, as a 12-year-old boy in London drops by a construction site to visit his mom the tunnel builder. Under the smiling benediction of hard-hatted workers, he pops into a lift and descends into the bowels of the Earth (kids do this all the time at London construction areas, apparently). Down below, one of the miners uncovers a cave of some sort and naturally invites the boy to go inside and investigate. There, he discovers a giant, fire-breathing dragon and manages to wake it upwhereupon the beast fries everybody to a crisp but somehow misses the child. Flash forward 20 years and our fair-haired boy has grown into a bearded, bitter Christian Bale. He is the leader of one of the last remnants of humanity in a world scorched to ash by thousands of dragons. His band of survivors eke by in an old castle, constantly on the lookout for the new masters of the Earth who prowl the skies looking for food below. Things get interesting when a wacko American soldier (McConaughey) drops by with a small army and a crazy plan to destroy the dragons.
So far, this has all the makings for a fine b-movie throw-down: a nice what-if plot (What if dragons were real and they came back to pick up where they left off?), a nifty setting (a burned-out London), and a good if obvious set of influences (The Road Warrior, Jaws). Unfortunately, McConaughey is the only one involved who seems to be having any fun. Everybody else was apparently under the impression that they were making a documentary. All the proceedings, even the dragon hunts, are enacted with a grim seriousness that makes you wonder if it was intended for the Discovery Channel. Where's the humor, the jolts, the ass-kicking?
Balancing verisimilitude and the demands of action-movie thrills is the job of the director, and if anybody could handle that challenge you'd think it'd be an X-Files vet like Rob Bowman. Sadly, he shoots for a sense of dreary reality instead of the fantastic. Sure, it's the end of the world and things are pretty rough, but that didn't stop Road Warrior director George Miller from creating a fascinating post-apocalyptic world in the Australian desert. The world of Reign of Fire, on the other hand, is all about the color gray: gray terrain, gray skies, gray characters. By the time we come to the big showdown with the Biggest, Baddest Dragon of Them All, you kind of wonder what our heroes are fighting for. The dragons are the only interesting things in the whole damn place, and the world will miss them.
Nevertheless, a lot of earnest effort went into Reign of Fire and it's a reasonably entertaining summer movie that delivers on more of its promises than many of its bigger-budgeted competitors. But it lacks the funand budget-inspired visionof the best b-movies.