The Best Movie You Never Saw: Reign of Fire
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
In present-day London, twelve-year-old Quinn watches as his mother, a construction engineer, inadvertently wakes an enormous fire-breathing beast from its century-long slumber. Twenty years later, much of the world has been scarred by the beast and its offspring. As a fire chief, Quinn (Christian Bale) is responsible for warding off the beasts and keeping a community alive as they eke out a meager existence. Into their midst come a hotshot American, Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), who says he has a way to kill the beasts and save mankind - a way Quinn's never seen done. Fuses a medieval past with a post-apocalyptic future in this exciting tale of adventure and survival.
Story was written by Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka with a screenplay by both, along with Matt Greenberg. It was directed by Rob Bowman (THE X-FILES, ELEKTRA) and stars Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Butler, Izabella Scorupco, and Alexander Siddig.
REIGN OF FIRE was shot on location in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland on 7 acres of land, where they operated under the express condition that they clean up after themselves and without damaging the landscape. The dragon effects were done by The Secret Lab, an animation company that had worked on such films as MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and ARMAGEDDON. Director Rob Bowman, who had previously worked on The X-Files TV show and feature film, wanted the dragons to be like “real animals” and he worked closely with the effects team to achieve his goals (For a detailed explanation on the effects, click here).
The production wrapped without any major incidents, minus an accidental headbutt during a fight scene between Bale and McConaughey, and debuted in theaters on July 12, 2002. It opened in 3rd place, just behind ROAD TO PERDITION and MEN IN BLACK II. Although not a massive hit domestically (with a final tally of $43 million stateside), the overseas box office gave it a marginal profit with a worldwide total of $82 million from a $60 million budget. Its average score on Rotten Tomatoes is 40 percent. Since its release, REIGN OF FIRE has become well-known as a fun B-movie with A-list stars and is oft-mentioned as an unsung hero of the genre.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
REIGN OF FIRE isn’t high art. It’s not something you’d ever call brilliant or groundbreaking. But, it doesn’t want to be any of those things, so there’s no point in measuring it against something it never aspired to be. REIGN OF FIRE is a tongue-in-cheek post apocalyptic daydream movie. It’s one of those films that you see in your head while scribbling in your notebook during your high school years that captures the spirit and character of fantasy action pics from decades before. It’s one of the best ‘80’s movies never made.
The two biggest assets to REIGN OF FIRE are its main stars, Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. In 2002 that was a cool match up, but given the significant rise in their popularity since then, it’s kind of epic to see the two working together in an action/fantasy flick fighting dragons. Toss in a young looking pre-Leonidas Gerard Butler, a post-GOLDENEYE Izabella Scorupco, and even a cameo from the future King Geoffrey and you’ve got one hell of a “foreshadowed” cast of actors.
"Now Matthew is obviously a star. But he looks so different, you don't recognize him. So he comes on as Van Zan. Christian was initially reluctant, because he thought the original script, which I agree with ... [was] just was a bit exaggerated, I thought. But the central idea was strong. And I convinced him that I was going to tone it down and be very, very strict about the reality of the movie, that the characters would be three-dimensional. The movie would be about the characters living in a world overrun by dragons. Not a lot about dragons. And I shot the movie from the actors' point of view. There's not a lot of helicopter-swooping shots ... because I don't care about the dragons. I care about the people. The dragons are what makes life hard for the humans." – Rob Bowman (June, 2003)
For Bale, it was his first venture into action/sci-fi territory (he’d follow this with EQUILIBRIUM and then BATMAN BEGINS in 2005), which set the stage for his leading man status. McConaughey wasn’t an old hand at the genre yet either, but showed up with a dramatic makeover, complete with a shaved head and shredded physique, riddled with dragon tattoos. It was a definite departure from his mostly clean-cut roles up to that point and, in truth, pretty badass.
The story is somewhat pedestrian with Bale’s Quinn playing the troubled leader of a rabble of survivors in a ruined castle outside London confronted with the age old “survive or fight” conundrum when he meets McConaghey’s militaristic Van Zan, who is hell bent on destroying the dragons once and for all. Reluctantly, Quinn agrees to help in the eradication, which leads to a few fiery showdowns, including a mid-air parachute sequence that is a sheer blast of fun nonsense.
"He's seen the world blow itself apart. He's seen millions die and his wisdom says to him, it's been tried. It can't be done. Leave them, outlast them; they will eventually starve to death because they will have eradicated every food source from the earth. So, he's just saying, "Stay still and we can outlast them," because he's been up close and he knows there's no way that we're going to actually be able to kill them. What I liked about it is that I always like doing things that are very different from anything I've done before. I want to continue doing that." - Christian Bale (June, 2002)
Besides the high caliber of acting talent involved, the film looks amazing. It’s shot beautifully by late cinematographer Adrian Biddle (ALIENS), showing off the landscape in a blue-grey tinted lens that reeks of atmosphere. REIGN OF FIRE is what I often refer to as a “shot movie.” It’s full of great shots, many of which are better than the sum of the film itself. It’s a movie you watch again and again in hope that somehow you’ll see the full potential realized with the promise shown, but in the end it never quite gets there. Still, the shots that exist are just gorgeous, making it a standout nonetheless.
One of those standout scenes is of Bale riding on his horse, rifle slung over his back like a sword, echoing the fairytale aspect of a knight in armor riding into battle. After the castle is attacked by the main dragon, leaving it in flames, Quinn rides up to the entrance and dismounts, while flurries of ember and flame dance in the air as he desperately looks for survivors. It’s that simple scene that sticks in my head when I think of REIGN OF FIRE and the one that beckons me to watch it again and again and, ultimately, recommend it to others. It’s got plenty against it, but it has all these tiny cool pieces that keep me coming back.
"I sat down with Rob Bowman and he had exactly all the same concerns about it that I did, he felt all the things that could go wrong were the same as I felt, so we sort of made a pact in that first meeting that all these things must be done. There's no point to making this movie unless: The dragons are genuine predators, they're don't have human characteristics, they don't have a particular vendetta even against the humans they are just creatures going about their business of survival and we just happen to be lower on the food chain than them And the other thing that Rob was very adamant about that we stuck to was, with a big special effects movie, not to make it a special effects movie." – Christian Bale (July 2002)
McConaughey, shirtless, angry, wielding a giant axe and leaping into the air towards a dragon is another of those moments that stands out. It’s ridiculous, awesome, and iconic in that sense. But, it’s not just the action moments that stand out. There’s a scene early on when Bale and Butler are putting on a “play” of Star Wars for the kids in the castle, recreating a very famous scene from the original trilogy. It’s something that elevates the material from the B-movie status it seemed meant to be stuck in, but never faltered to. It’s also the only time you’ll see Christian Bale as Darth Vader.
The dragons are…fine. By today’s standards, especially after witnessing the ultimate dragon, Smaug, in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, they’re sub par, but for 2002 they were pretty sweet. Still, the story needed much more of the dragons, as they’re more of a metaphoric threat rather than a real one as we learn so very little about them outside of a bunch of voice over exposition (apparently they killed the dinosaurs…of course).
REIGN OF FIRE is a breezy 101 minutes of action/fantasy that feels much like a rollercoaster ride than a serious staple in the genre. And yet, there are those moments, those shots, and that kick ass cast, just before they blossomed into superstardom; it’s kind of a sight to see. Shit, how many more times will we see McConaughey headbutt Bale in a bare knuckle brawl? Exactly. It’s an easy movie to pass over if you aren’t already indoctrinated, but once it’s got you there’s a lot of incentive to return. So, next time you’re looking for a fun, silly, beautiful-looking action flick with dragons, REIGN OF FIRE will be waiting.
"When I got the head butt I kind of hit the deck. It dropped me like a sack of potatoes. I saw that in the movie I crawl around the ground for a couple of seconds and try to find my bearings. Then all I thought was 'Yes! That's going to look great!' Then I thought I had to get up off the ground and finish the scene, otherwise it was going to be no use. So I got up and finished the whole thing. I could see in my peripheral vision that the film crew were staring to see if I was all right. Then when we finished I ran over to Matthew and asked if he was ok. He said "Yeah you mad bastard, I head butted you." – Christian Bale (June 2003)
I’ve already mentioned my favorite “shots” from the flick, but there are three scenes that stand out as the best of the bunch. The first is the mid-air parachute scene, if not for its sheer ridiculousness. The second is the brawl between Bale and McConaughey. The third, and what I’d say is the most memorable, is the finale, which features the shirtless, axe-wielding McConaughey attacking the main dragon, leading to Bale’s final kill shot of the beast. It’s not the most suspenseful or perfectly executed sequence, but it’s definitely a very cool-looking one.
REIGN OF FIRE is available on Blu-ray/DVD and digital download. Get it here!
"My initial thoughts were that it could have become a special effects project rather than an acting project. I was worried that it might end up with the people in it looking a little bit foolish. Also, I was concerned about how the dragons were going to look. CGI is an incredible thing but I've seen them use it disastrously many times before. But, that said, I'm kind of attracted by movies where there is a real possibility of it going badly wrong. There have been movies where other people have said to me "You're nuts for doing this! Why would you risk doing this?", and I've kind of realized that that's what I enjoy." – Christian Bale (August 2002).
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