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Reign of Fire

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg-13
95 min. Touchstone. Director: Rob Bowman. Cast: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler, Scott Moutter.

Listen, Reign of Fire—the preeminent post-apocalyptic dragon picture—makes a terrible film. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't make a darn diverting movie. This is the kind of movie that will only work on the condition that you widen your eyes and shut down your brain. It doesn't make a lick of sense (well, maybe one lick), but if you make a matinee of it, it'll provide reasonable bang for your bucks.

In 2002 Northumberland, England, twelve-year-old Quinn Abercromby becomes the first modern "man" to witness the fabled dragon, with traumatic results. According to this film's intriguing "what if" premise—which is gleefully right-brained—the long-dormant dragons, once unleashed, bred like bunnies, torched the planet, and forced humans into a underground resistance movement. The film quickly leaps forward to depict these consequences, in the world of 2020 A.D., where grown-up Quinn (Christian Bale) leads a scrappy band who hunker down in a crumbling castle with the humble goal of survival. It takes the arrival of American alpha-male commando Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey, leaking testosterone with Hestonesque zeal) to bite the bullet and go after the fire-breathers.

The joke of the picture is that the dragon is the alpha male. As it's sketchily explained (at ninety minutes, most of the logic is on the cutting-room floor), the world is overrun with female dragons, with one male dragon flying around and getting his flame on, if you know what I mean. How, then, this one very busy male dragon can be relied upon to be in one place where our heroes can find him remains entirely unclear. Suffice it to say that after a couple of flirtations, an ultimate showdown is arranged. The human drama, despite the almost-presence of Izabella Scorupco, also focuses on the heavy-breathing, barking male species, with McConaughey's brash muscle contrasting Bale's (also muscular) emotional leadership. Along the way, Quinn's young adult adoptee becomes a man.

Reign of Fire is wisely aware of its own inherent cheesiness, and director Rob Bowman (weaned on Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files before debuting on film with the X Files movie) inflects the film with a juicily overplayed Hammer horror sensibility. The dialogue ranges from bad to worse, with gems like "We have to go on. We have to outlast them" and "Only one species is getting out of this alive," and the production would have benefited from more breadth and scope (let's be honest: more dragons). But Bowman successfully evokes the mood if not the details of the underground society (in one particularly clever flourish, modern movies become oral tradition), orchestrates a thrilling sky-dive sequence, and presents dragons both sufficiently menacing and "cool," which is the ultimate compliment for a summer movie.

Because this is a movie which relies not on its brain-fried script but its larger-than-life-ness, I wouldn't recommend waiting for video. You either want to see the post-apocalyptic dragon movie or you don't, and if you can admit to yourself that you do, that's half the battle.

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