- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

The rousing and pictorially inventive monster spectacle "Reign of Fire" asks us to share the desperate plight and last-ditch offensive of a valiant remnant of humans plagued for a generation by a resurrected species of airborne and incendiary dragon.
The beasts supposedly have laid waste to major population centers around the globe. The humans, led by Christian Bale as a brave and tenacious (but less than fearsome or commanding) holdout named Quinn, dwell in their last redoubt. It's a castle in Northumberland, England's most northerly county, where they keep watchful eyes on the sky.
The arrival of an unexpected American task force consisting of an armored column and a single helicopter gunship changes the outlook from hunkering down to all-or-nothing counterattack. The hard-bitten newcomers have an ostentatious commander, a post-apocalyptic Ahab named Van Zan.
The role gives Matthew McConaughey a distinctive, flamboyantly swaggering showcase. Bearded, bald, muscled, tattooed and chewing on the stump of a cigar, he synthesizes a number of inspirations, from the obsessive captain of the Pequod to Gen. George S. Patton to hulking headliners from World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.
According to Van Zan, he and his irregulars have flown the Atlantic in a rebuilt transport plane in order to stage an assault on the London nest of the boss beastie, a bull dragon believed to be the original and only progenitor of the fire-breathing hordes, so destructive that they have taken to feeding on themselves.
These "givens" alone will give you an idea of how effortless it might be to second-guess the plot of "Reign of Fire." Personally, for example, I would find it easier to believe that the members of the Van Zan team were exiles in the British Isles all along, using U.S. military hardware that happened to be stranded there.
Even more difficult to credit is the idea that the entire dragon horde is the spawn of one daddy, although that has the novelty value of getting away from the mommy-monster tradition that reaches back to "Aliens" and even "Dragonslayer." It also keeps the decisive action sequences compact and focused on Big Daddy in a way that recalls some of the economy of "Jaws." The final showdown in "Reign of Fire" also pits three overmatched humans Mr. Bale, Mr. McConaughey and Izabella Scorupco as a chopper pilot named Alex against the big beast.
The poster art for the movie illustrates a holocaust that is never depicted in a full-blown way on the screen: an aerial duel between dragons and helicopter gunships over a burning London. The screenplay glides over this epochal calamity and its implied counterparts in other capitals.
The question for the movie in general is whether audiences will be content with the decision to keep the emphasis intimate and curiously anticlimactic. Theoretically, the movie could end in a battle royal between dragon and human armadas over the skies of London or wherever.
Will spectators feel cheated because potential spectacles of that magnitude don't fit into the time frame, which leaps from Quinn's traumatized childhood to a generation later, when he is exiled in Northumberland? Maybe, but it seems to me that director Rob Bowman and his principal scenic collaborators earn the benefit of the doubt.
Cinematographer Adrian Biddle, whose credits include "Aliens" and "The World Is Not Enough," sustains infernal glows of several intensities. He seems especially alert when sparks are in the air. The production designer, Wolf Kroeger, is something of a wizard with medieval and war-torn evocations, previously evident in "Ladyhawke," "The 13th Warrior" and "Enemy at the Gates." The special-effects supervisors, Richard R. Hoover and Dan DeLeeuw, prove exceptionally effective with pyrotechnics and dragon physiognomy.
While it's unfolding, the movie imposes a sustained menacing dynamism. It keeps you on edge, securely quivering in the boots of the endangered, valorous humans. Unlike most recent spectacles and/or thrillers, "Reign of Fire" also runs a trim 100 minutes, leaving little room for slack.
The best discursive material also has a distinctive focus: the children of the Northumberland colony, introduced when Quinn and his pal Creedy (Gerard Butler, entrusted with the only lighthearted personality in camera range) act out a famous scene from "The Empire Strikes Back."
One's awareness of the children, an extremely responsive and photogenic group under Mr. Bowman's direction, puts an extra burden of vicarious anxiety on the sequence in which the castle is attacked and engulfed in flames. While Quinn, Creedy and the other grown-ups struggle to get the youngsters behind fireproof doors, you may wish the rating had been lifted a notch to R.
Despite its shortcomings, question marks and conceptual whoppers, "Reign of Fire" generates considerable suspense and excitement and commands respect for trying to reconcile incisive storytelling and emotional restraint with a fantastic order of spectacle.

TITLE: "Reign of Fire"
RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence and terror revolving around attacks by fire-breathing dragons; episodes in which young children are endangered by the beasts; fleeting profanity)
CREDITS: Directed by Rob Bowman. Screenplay by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

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