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Reign of Fire (Rob Bowman) 2002


    As far as unexpected movie pleasures go, a wild, out-of-nowhere performance in a somewhat mediocre and predictable movie has to rank near the top. Though there’s nothing truly bad about Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire, the clear reason that the time spent watching it will be memorable later on is Matthew McConaughey’s turn as the American military commander Denton “the Dragonslayer” Van Zan. From the moment he appears on screen, McConaughey seems physically and behaviorally transformed from what we’ve seen in the past. He’s far buffer, butcher, and focused than one would think possible here (in his earlier work, he seemed a bit laid-back and hazy), and he actively recalls the comic book hero Sgt. Rock, as he rides on screen straddling a tank. After a fistfight, he swaggers boldly across the screen, leading with his pelvis. Even the most clichéd lines that are put in his mouth, like “At dawn, we bury our dead,” have some kind of macho gusto behind them, and work as a result. Though he might not reach the heights that Robert Duvall did in his brief role as an astonishingly unfazed C.O. in Apocalypse Now, he manages to recall that great caricature. Best of all, since he’s playing such an exaggerated lunkhead, he seems to be the only one who’s clued into how preposterous this film’s premise is, which at least gives the audience someone they can really rally behind while watching the silliness.


    That silly premise shows an Earth of the near future that’s been besieged by a race of hidden dragons. Mostly though, it’s an excuse to hang a series of sequences that seem combine elements from nearly every action movie every made. There are chases on horseback and chases in helicopters, fistfights and gunfights, paratroopers and elevators, and all of them feature some scary computer-generated dragons. Most of the excitement comes from the sheer audacity in these juxtapositions. If the dragons themselves aren’t exceptionally impressive (what CGI is these days?), the movie doesn’t squander them entirely either. Their burnt-out London rookery is pretty darn cool. Problems arise mostly when the humans start talking: the dialogue is rather dreadful. It’s also unfortunate that Bowman decided that it was of utmost importance that we understand that these men were fighting their fight “for their children.” There’s a gaggle of them, and whenever they’re onscreen, the movie becomes something sappier and stupider (though an early scene where Christian Bale takes credit for inventing the Star Wars myth is pretty clever). Thankfully, the movie doesn’t waste too much of our time with that sort of needless character development, and gets to the exciting parts quickly. Bonus points go to it since, unlike most summer blockbusters of late, it’s satisfied to have just one climax at the end.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman