Reign of Fire

  • Matthew McConaughey Acting Crazy, Even For Him
  • American Psycho
  • Giant, Flying, Napalm Spitting Dragons


Directed by The Guy Who Made "The X-Files" Movie

"No Sandra, I never smoked pot and played the bongos naked with her. We're just friends!"

Apocalyptic Insanity

The last time God decided to destroy the earth with fire, we have to assume that by "entire Earth" He just meant isolated pockets of the Holy Land, because a planet-wide swath of fire would have consumed all the woodland and rain forest of the Western Hemisphere, and in a matter of centuries the CO2 from the smoke alone—especially without forests to consume and convert the carbon dioxide into oxygen—would have raised the Earth's temperature enough to obliterate all mankind. But we're not concerned about that now—we know that God was just trying to make a point that white people and their ancestors are very bad. Of course, we didn't get the hint. Some have even suggested that in the symbolism of the collapsing World Trade Center is the idea that Western white people only got what we deserved. I don't know about any of that—what I do know, thanks to Reign of Fire, is that the future of Western Civilization is not threatened by a complex network of wealthy Islamic fundamentalists, but a complex network of fundamentalist fire-breathing dragons whose bull male currently inhabits the caverns of the British subway system. Apparently, when God finally decides to punish us for exterminating the Indians, colonizing the Africans, and clear-cutting Southeast Asia, he will do so by proxy, in the form of these napalm-producing flying lizards.

No wonder the Chunnel is such a mess. Little Quinn (Christian Bale) descends into subterranean London looking for his mommy, an engineer for some new underground railroad or something. He scampers around the dark caverns and stumbles upon one angry dragon. The dragon, like Sid Vicious, is none to happy about being stuck in the London Underground and decides to take it out on the entire planet. Like a true terrorist, this dragon awakens to a reptilian version of suicide bomber-heaven: After wreaking havoc across the planet, he is rewarded with the task of mating with a legion of virgin dragons. The symbolic value of all this is quite vague: We're kinda-sorta given the idea that Christian's dad is a bit of a louse, so maybe the dragon is an expression of filial disappointment in the pater familias. It's not an unprecedented idea: The last time we saw an angry dad set explosions in dark mines of Britain, Billy Elliot emerged from the fire like a dove from a John Woo explosion and danced to his little heart's content.

Unfortunately, like with Bruce Spence and the oil drillers from The Road Warrior's post-nuclear Australia, Christian Bale has to help his band of followers survive in the torchlit underground until some crazy, cocksure savior rolls into town. To his credit, Bale is a firm, intimidating leader with a soft side: when roaming the underground tunnels without his shirt, the other men immediately resume their work. On the other hand, Bale takes time out to recite myths to the children by reenacting Luke and Vader's fateful meeting at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, performing it like carnival thespians staging a makeshift Hamlet. Quinn's reign—indeed, his very manliness—is brought into question when Denton (Matthew McConaughey) rolls into town. The scenario is like that of World War II: The British—bunkered down in London, under siege from giant, flying killing machines—await the arrival of the cocky Americans, armed to the hilt with tanks and arrogance. In fact, McConaughey plays the role like Patton, except much crazier, trying to bull Bale's Truman into fighting fire with fire at the risk of destroying all mankind. One look into the crazy eyes of Matthew McConaughey, and I became firmly convinced that his research for the role consisted of heavy drugs, a trip to the Austin Blockbuster, and intense note-taking on Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore.

I'm not sure if there's any intended allegory here outside of the obvious Biblical. As soon as McConaughey pulls up in his tank and stretches out his arms, it's pretty apparent who's going to be crucified to save the human citizens of Planet Earth. Reign of Fire craves Mad Max's post-apocalypse meeting of the mythological past, but the setup encumbers the story. In The Road Warrior, we're told that the apocalypse was brought about by warring countries over the world's gasoline reserves (the film came out in 1981, just a few years after the energy crisis of the 1970's). When fuel dumps or semi-trucks explode in this film, we see that it's a function of primal territorialism and greed, the savagery of the "tribes" of the "future" compared to savagery of present-day geopolitics. In Reign of Fire, the dragons produce their own napalm, so without it being made clear who these dragons are, their destruction ultimately means nothing. Especially as an action film, Reign of Fire pales in comparison to The Road Warrior: Mel Gibson's movie is about movement, chase, and clash, making the arid desolation of the Australian Outback kinetic with industrial energy. Reign of Fire, in contrast, is about peeping one's head out and ducking before it gets charred off. The grand finale tries to build suspense by sneaking around, but Denton is not a sneaky guy, so it feels forced when, of course, he goes out in a blaze of glory. I'm a bit surprised that the napalm-spitting dragons didn't aim right for his facial hair, burning off his lip and charring him from ear to ear. Really, McConaughey's facial hair is his best acting prop: It seems to exists only to trap spittle after eating roasted meat.

Without the action itself to tell the story, we're forced to fill in the blanks with long stretches of dialogue while bunkered down in the caverns. The film spends much of its time with ominous tedium and the struggle between Quinn's caution and Denton's gung-ho, the dialogue too underwritten to be able to sustain us in the weak torchlight of the underground. Long stretches of it are rather boring—the film only springs to life in the presence of the flying menaces. I couldn't find any meaning in the pictures, and after a while, I stopped listening to the words. In the end, I'm not sure what any of this means: I kept looking for some sort of imperial subtext in the image of the parched London skyline, or maybe something about looking to the mythologies of the past for a caution about the future. The director, Rob Bowman, is no stranger to modern mythology, witness his involvement with The X-Files: Fight the Future. The result, however, is an apocalyptic hodgepodge of foreboding speeches, warmongering machismo, and computer-generated flying lizards. Reign of Fire is worth seeing, only if you would care for a glimpse of what Matthew McConaughey considers a suitable Robert Duvall impersonation.

The Pitch:
1 Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
1 Dragonslayer
2 Reign of Fire
See It For:
Matthew and the gang take cover outside The Drafthouse in Austin when Harry Knowles heads to the rest room after downing a pitcher of Shiner Bock, two dozen Buffalo wings, and a platter of Tex-Mex nachos.