Shiny Shelf

Reign of Fire

By Stephen Lavington on 16 June 2003

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

I love ‘Mad Max’. Well, to be fair I love ‘Mad Max 2′. The last outpost of humanity in a desolated wasteland, a fortress mentality just trying to keep the race going, a siege mentality against brutal, unpredictable opposition and the arrival of a saviour with an airborne compatriot to help the resistance achieve victory. Great stuff, but with one small problem, a problem that this film rectifies; a total lack of dragons.

Dragons have been unfairly sidelined in movie history. Sure, we’ve had Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation and the awesomely bad ‘Dragonheart’ but they’ve always been the preserve of sword-and-sorcery b-movies; they remain one of the untouchable castes of movie monsters. Perhaps its their nature; reptilian, flying, fire-breathing dragons are a triple threat – it takes a lot of money to put them up on screen and, frankly, producers with that sort of money prefer to spend it on alien spaceships the size of cities, on reuniting Mel Gibson and Danny Glover or on getting Halle Berry to take her top off: not a bunch of barbarians, wizards and ten-sided dice guff.

But what if one were to take the mythical concept of the dragon and give it a more contemporary spin? Indeed, this was the less-than-obvious tactic of Rob Bowman (‘The X-Files’ movie) and co, but they took it a step further giving a tantalising glimpse of a great battle between man and beast ending in nuclear holocaust. The meat of the story is based on the survival of a few scattered outposts of human dragon-fodder fifteen years later. Which, in a very longwinded way, takes us back to the first paragraph; ‘Reign of Fire’ is
‘Mad Max II’ with dragons.

And, once the bizarre concept is digested, the elements become fairly predictable. Christian Bale is the lone survivor of the first dragon attack, Matthew McGonaghy is the crazed leader of the ‘Kentucky Irregulars’ – a dragon-slaying force – Isabella Scuropco is his pilot. They clash over tactics of concealment versus confrontation but eventually work together in a rather lame ‘you’ve got to kill the head vampire’-esque conclusion.

What makes this so enjoyable are the little things. Dragons are still European in origin, emerging from a London Underground extension project a la ‘Quatermass and the Pit’. There is some thought to their physiology – they breathe a napalm/nitro-glycerine binary compound, which is used to reduce organic matter to the ashes that they eat, and are not just hugely powerful but also breed like council estate rabbits. The post-apocalyptic setting is, despite ‘Mad Max’, an original proposition and makes for more tension – this is literally the last hope for humanity, as opposed to the seemingly limitless military resources afforded to the governments of ‘Independence Day’.

The finest moment comes as Bale and his Lieutenant act out an old fairy story to a group of wide-eyed children. A timeless classic of good versus evil, a white knight and a dark knight, the dialogue they use is, it becomes apparent, that of the Luke/Vader confrontation from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

Importantly, the special effects are well up to par. Several complex sequences come off without a hitch and the perpetual gloom of Northumberland cloaks any ropy shots. The dragons are menacing and there is one specific dragon-slaying sequence that ranks up with anything in ‘Attack of the Clones’ or ‘The Two Towers’ for thrills and enjoyment.

‘Reign of Fire’ was passed over on cinema screens unfairly. Once you get over the initial disappointment at the lack of Apache/Dragon combat as promised on the posters there is a decent little movie here, not without flaws but worth a look. The DVD extras are pretty disappointing with the usual soporific special effects documentaries, a brief look at the weak video-game and an amusing trailer that shows just how far marketing went in an attempt to make this look like ‘Independence Day’.

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By Stephen Lavington

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