In the fifties and sixties, producers of sci-fi and fantasy films often had great ideas and concepts for their genre-busting movies that were, inevitably, hampered by either low budgets, derisory special effects, poor performances or inept direction - and usually all four at once - but that never stopped them attempting to bring their intended showstoppers to the screen. And, to be fair, some of these brave efforts remain very likeable and entertaining for all their failings. Films such as “It! The Terror From Beyond Space”, for example, get by on the brass balls of their enthusiasm, though will forever be labelled as hack offerings.
2002 saw The X-Files supremo Rob Bowman strike out with a similarly grandiose scheme that was so outrageous it just might have worked. Imagine a world, our world, ruled by those fire-breathing, winged demons of myth and legend, a blighted, flame-scorched apocalypse in which tiny pockets of humanity try to eke out a perilous existence amid the devastated cities and the ash of a vanquished civilisation. Airborne hunters swoop down and prey upon the slow and the unlucky, mankind reduced to mere fodder for the armour-hided predators. One isolated fortress holds the key to man's survival - nobility and comradeship the watchwords for its beleaguered inhabitants. But when a rogue band of militarised marauders, who live on the edge of sanity as self proclaimed dragon-slayers, arrive in force, a war of wills between the two scavenging tribes ensues and the delicate balance of survival for all is threatened. One final, epic battle will decide Man's future as the leaders of the two factions must unite to destroy the common enemy ... for here there be dragons.
Be honest, that's a great pitch. It is easy to see why, with today's technologies, that Reign Of Fire was greenlit. And some awesome advance artwork (remember that incredible poster) depicting an airborne dogfight between helicopter gunships and napalm-spitting dragons over a blazing London couldn't fail to ignite enthusiasm.
The indications of greatness were clear. For one thing, just look at the cast. The great Christian Bale as the new-age people's protector Quinn - a determined and compassionate leader of the forsaken slag-heap community holed-up in a ramshackle refinery in rural Northumbria; his best friend and loyal lieutenant, Creedy, played by still-on-the-ascent Gerard (300) Butler; a shaven-headed, buffed-up and tattooed-up-the-kazoo-and-back Matthew McConnaughey as crackpot renegade tank commander Van Zan; Goldeneye's risqué-Russki Izabella Scoruptco as a hotshot whirlybird pilot. Then look at the setting. In an unusual and audacious step, Hollywood roots the action squarely in the heartland of the mythical dragon's den pf yore ... northern England. (That's medieval dragon, folks, not the Chinese wing of the family.) In one fell swoop, you've got a post-apocalyptic age of chivalry with some grungy new knights of the realm to battle it out with the dragons. There's even the neat and rather funky revelation that these critters were actually responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs in the first place. Reign Of fire could so easily have been the action-orientated Holy Grail for fantasy-lovers.
“Look out the window. Eden's not burning ... it's burned.”
So what went wrong?
Well, quite a bit, actually. The screenplay, by Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka, is pretty awful and riddled with daft and gigglesome lines that come across as even more laughable when uttered by someone as deadly-damn serious as Christian Bale. The contrivance of having Quinn actually be the grown-up version of the 12-year old boy who first discovered the sleeping dragons beneath the excavations of London years before is totally unnecessary and, indeed, is only there to allow for a prologue to help visualise the scene-setting voiceover at the start. The epic scope of the notion of this grave and cataclysmic event is only conveyed with a montage of press-cuttings that conveniently (and cheaply) illustrate the global wave of incendiary destruction - check out the woefully prosaic photographs of London, Paris and New York under siege. Not even CNN could get that close to the action, snap the pic of a lifetime and then survive the onslaught long enough to locate an undamaged facility in which to actually publish them. And, judging by the scale of the devastation being wrought about by the rampaging dragons, just who was going to be buying the newspapers anyway?
Then we have the totally bizarre arrival of the gruff Kentuckian Denton Van Zan and his ragtag militia convoy which is, of course, quite thrilling in its cinematic practicality, but is just plain loopy when you think about the sheer logistics of it. Van Zan's explanation about the airstrip just outside of Manchester just doesn't hold water, I'm afraid. And as for his theories regarding the destruction of the dragons and his wacky and totally suicidal tactics for bringing the beasts to the ground ...who would ever sign up for his platoon of army surplus fetishists in the first place? Which naturally brings me onto the big set-piece of the first half of the film. How exactly does Van Zan and his cute 'copter pilot Alex (Scoruptco) think that a bunch of skydivers are going to be successful against a supremely aerodynamic and incredibly vicious dragon? All that fancy-ass 3D triangulation waffle is just plain ludicrous, although it does make for a thrillingly dumb hook to introduce Quinn's courage to the mix, once a remote sensor throws the operation into disarray.
“Only one thing worse than a dragon ... Americans.”
But the biggest deficit by far in bringing such a tale to the screen is the production's lack of budget. Oh, there may be a nice enough sheen to the pyrotechnics and some impressively-mounted sequences, courtesy of Adrien Biddle's terrific camerawork, but post-apocalyptic settings are the easiest filmic cop-outs yet. If you can't find a desert, a la Mad Max, then head for some rain-grey, bleak locale up in Cumbria, Wales or Northumberland - any old quarry will do. (Actually, it was filmed in Ireland, but the scenery is uniformly the same.) It worked for several seasons of Tom Baker's Doctor Who, didn't it? Here though the environment is so forlorn, dreary and bland - as indeed it is meant to be after the dragons have incinerated most of England's green and pleasant land - that we long for the sight of a ruined London to spike up the visuals with some haunted spires and a melted-wax Big Ben. Yet all we are treated to is some blocked-off dockland warehouses, a clutch of rusted iron bedsprings and some higgledy-piggeldy scaffolding. That just doesn't cut it, I'm, afraid.
“Oh, he's a dragonslayer, eh? I suppose that makes you King Arthur ...”
The script attempts to ram home that metaphor for the slow at catching on.
And those dragons that reign supreme over the Earth and dominate the skies may look mightily impressive when swooping in for the kill or cooking the odd armoured truck here and there but, barring the majestic shot of them taking flight en masse from a digitised London skyline, we only ever see one gadding about, and then only fleetingly. In the old days, the adage about less is more made perfect sense. The Alien was far more effective because we rarely saw it. But when the situation has been dictated by a full-on war between mankind and these things and their presence is evidently all-around, the severe lack of dragon-action points to only one thing. They actually can't afford any. It is akin to filming the beach landings from Saving Private Ryan with only a handful of extras and no computer to create any more.
“You follow ... I lead.”
Van Zan's ruthless attitude exhibits itself.
And yet, folks, despite all that you've just read, I have to confess that I love Reign Of Fire. Yep, that's right. I think it's great. For all of its cheapness, stupidity and risible dialogue, I'm enamoured by its stark and grim atmosphere, its quite staggering seriousness of tone and the bravura performances put in by the ever-reliable Bale and, surprisingly enough, even by the usually overly-laconic McConnaughey as the mad-as-a-hatter Van Zan. So, for all of you fans of the film (yes all five of you) who hated the last few paragraphs, relax, because now we can sit back and revel in the B-movie glories that Reign Of Fire has oodles of to offer. Any naysayers (ie- the rest of you) can go and read something else.
“Quinn, you lead ... we follow ...”
Van Zan sees the error of his ways and, well, bows down to Christian Bale's even more intense performance than his own.
The pairing of Bale and McConnaughey is magnificent. Both men act their little socks off, delivering performances that simply tower above the characters as they were written on the page. Bale's Mighty Quinn (get it?) is a whirling storm of trademark intensity, setting the screen alight every time he is on it. Whether poring over his collection of press-cuttings, or putting on improvised stage-shows for the pseudo-education of the gaggle of vagabond kids (love that Star Wars riff - pretty inspired that, actually) or facing-off against the burley yank for control of the situation, he keeps his focus and genuinely elevates the role into something far, far greater than anybody else could. The subtext about Quinn being a latter-day knight is buried by the ignorance of the script, but Bale brings it to the surface in the same way in which he brings 150% to everything else he does. It is also great to hear him mouth off in his own accent for a change and this, of course, makes for wonderful ground to be made out of his and McConnaughey's heated exchanges - the cockney barrow-boy snarling into the drawled arrogance of the cowboy hot-head. Cracking stuff. And the brawny-battler strips down to reveal another one of his expertly chiselled torsos, making it quite clear that the best of the produce that he and his settlers manage to farm from the charcoal crops out the back goes directly to the chief. It is also a refrshingly unusual sight to see the brick-hard Bale take a battering. McConnaughey, for his part, amplifies the manic zeal of Van Zan by going it bald, bedecking himself in swathes of tribal tattoos and growing one of those long furry beard/moustache combos so beloved by denim-clad bikers. It is an image that is at once intimidating and inspiring. He looks like a WWII rebel, stoned on tank-fuel, who has strayed into Mad Max's neck of the wasteland, though he actually harks back much further than that, evoking the spirit of the South like a Confederate cavalryman. Like Bale, McConnaughey realises that the only way he get any pleasure out of playing the part is by blowing the roof off it, thus he takes Van Zan to the limit, marooning any self-parody far behind and letting the wildcard be as fiery and as dangerously flamboyant as the whim takes him. Easily the best (and the most ridiculous) thing in the movie, Van Zan kicks up a right old storm when he and his gung-ho platoon roll up the muddy path to Quinn's castle. At the time of the film's release, much was said in reviews of him riding atop his battered tank with his legs either side of the huge phallic barrel. Well, look again. The sly joke is that he is actually sitting behind the barrel with his legs either side of a decidedly smaller machine-gun. Thus, the arrogance that he assumes as he leads the way is far more crucial and knowing. “That's just part of the tank, honey,” he seems to be sneering. “This is me, baby! Big enough for yer?”
Accompanied by Edward Shearmur's boldly militaristic theme, the scene is as marvellously apt as it is preposterous.
Another good thing about these two is how convincing they both are when telling us of past events. Van Zan explaining his own backstory, how he got the dragon's fang and the rising up of the townsfolk of Coffeyville is, of course, completely comical ... yet listen to his voice and, more importantly, look into his eyes as he recounts the tale. He believes it all and that is enough for me. Another good scene-stealing moment is when he and his men kill the fun at the dragon-slaying soiree - his teary-eyed lament is so strangely touching that it is almost easy to forget how silly the whole thing really is. Likewise, when Quinn talks about the futility of going to London and gasps out his warning of the ruins at Pembury, creating a great and ominous surge of dread that we just know is going to come true in a scene or two. Indeed, to his credit, director Bowman injects so much activity and incident into the film that there is rarely time to draw breath. Even in the slightly stale and formulaic moments when Quinn begs his surrogate son (played by the film's worst actor, Scott James Moutter) not to go with Van Zan on his foolhardy crusade, he allows Bale some expressive leeway with his lines so as to keep the energy levels riding high. Again, Bale's interaction with Scoruptco has an edge that the script just didn't think of incorporating. Her Air Cavalry-ace Alex has an accent that wavers about as much as her helicopter does, but Scoruptco is easy on the eye and even provides a great little vignette of shooting from the hip during the frantic climax.
“It doesn't care about us ... it just wants the damn ash off that field!”
With a surprisingly high action-quota - lots of running about, diving in slow-motion and rolling out of flame's way - Reign Of Fire is never, never boring. There are even some terrifically memorable images that punctuate Bowman's under-appreciated movie. Check out the figures of a morose Van Zan and Quinn either side of a huge funeral pyre, or the Iraq-reminiscent shot of a convoy ablaze on the road to London. Then there is the majestic sequence that sees an enraged dragon squatting atop Quinn's breached stronghold and venting its anger in rippling sheets of flame. Or how about Quinn, himself, cresting a hilltop on a stallion with a dragon right behind him and Van Zan aiming the biggest harpoon directly at him? Oh, there is some good stuff in here, folks. Even the climax manages to pack in lots of excitement and suspense amid the unflattering Blitz-look London.
“That's a good story ... especially the bit about the plane. Nothing's been in the air for twenty years ... that's their territory.”
“That's my territory. That's your territory. It's our territory. They're just rentin' it.”
Perhaps another reason why I feel so fond of this film is because of that Doctor Who gravel-pit thing I mentioned earlier. The setting feels so familiar. It's not some CG-plastered planet, or an epic Middle Earth or even an oft-filmed New York, Los Angeles or even Prague (which usually doubles for either, these days). But the Doctor Who vibe goes a little deeper than that. The whole plot sounds quite plausible in a 70's era-Tom Baker kind of way. The gravel-pit, two strangely-garbed factions at odds with one another and a pesky swarm of dragons to keep the fantasy element alive for some episodic cliffhangers. All it would take is for the Tardis to materialise and for a scarf-wrapped Tom to blunder out with a bag of jelly-babies and the film would get a glorious 10 out of 10! Maybe 11 if Sarah-Jane is with him, too!
Like that other “could've been a classic” of recent years, John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior (which is another tremendously atmospheric thriller that was, in this case, ruined by its own editor and scribe Michael Crichton), Reign Of Fire has many unique elements and a story concept that is undeniably juicy. As it stands now, the film resides under the banner of Guilty Pleasure and, as such, should feel no shame. It's big (at times), it's dumb (sadly, for most of the time) and it's let down by threadbare finances (a tale as old as time), but it is sure-as-hell entertaining and so almost cool that it hurts. Bale and McConnaughey relish their roles and, clearly, without them the film would be a fiasco. Still, seeing those two go head to head and the whole bravado of McConnaughey riding up on his tank wins me over every time. It's flamin' great! Well recommended ... if, you know, you like this sort of thing!
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