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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Reign of Fire

01.31.2014

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.

This week we’ll be looking at REIGN OF FIRE with Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey!

THE STORY:

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.

THE PLAYERS:

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.

THE HISTORY:

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)

BEST SCENE:

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.

SEE IT:

REIGN OF FIRE is available on Blu-ray/DVD and digital download. Get it here!

PARTING SHOT:

"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).

CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...

Source: JoBlo.com

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+0
6:52AM on 03/31/2015

Excellent Post Apocalyptic/Dragon flic.

This one is cult for me, I love it every time I watch it even more..
Dragon are not ok, they are great! Smaug "the talking dragon" was a bit of a Disney character..
Wish we had more films like this.. (not talking about 2,3,4... part1, part50, etc)
This one is cult for me, I love it every time I watch it even more..
Dragon are not ok, they are great! Smaug "the talking dragon" was a bit of a Disney character..
Wish we had more films like this.. (not talking about 2,3,4... part1, part50, etc)
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5:36PM on 02/02/2014
Always liked this movie, liked the way they did the dragons and this was the film that gave me newfound respect for McConaughey the first time I saw it… in the same way that when I first saw 12 Monkeys and I realised Brad Pitt was awesome.
Always liked this movie, liked the way they did the dragons and this was the film that gave me newfound respect for McConaughey the first time I saw it… in the same way that when I first saw 12 Monkeys and I realised Brad Pitt was awesome.
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2:43PM on 02/01/2014

McConaughey is a freakin bad ass in this

happy to see the dude back on top because this flick and 'Frailty' showed glimpse of what he could do with a meaty role. With that said, i enjoyed this movie and the premise was fresh and original though always felt it feel a little short of how kick ass it could've been.
happy to see the dude back on top because this flick and 'Frailty' showed glimpse of what he could do with a meaty role. With that said, i enjoyed this movie and the premise was fresh and original though always felt it feel a little short of how kick ass it could've been.
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+4
1:48AM on 02/01/2014

Highly Underrated

This thing is far from perfect, but it is awesome. Nice story and a strong argument for additional viewings.
This thing is far from perfect, but it is awesome. Nice story and a strong argument for additional viewings.
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8:54PM on 01/31/2014

McConaughey 's leap...

is one of the most badass character defining moment I've ever seen. Van Zan is the ultimate badass, one of the few who goes all the way with this ultimate act of badassery. Did I overuse the word badass ? He sure deserves it.
Thanks again Mr Shirey, the last batch of "Best movies you never saw" were practically made so you could create this column.
is one of the most badass character defining moment I've ever seen. Van Zan is the ultimate badass, one of the few who goes all the way with this ultimate act of badassery. Did I overuse the word badass ? He sure deserves it.
Thanks again Mr Shirey, the last batch of "Best movies you never saw" were practically made so you could create this column.
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3:08PM on 02/01/2014
Glad you're enjoying the column, dude. MANY more to come!
Glad you're enjoying the column, dude. MANY more to come!
+2
8:27PM on 01/31/2014

This is an outstanding movie!

It's not just good, it's really good! I can't call it great because it doesn't draw me in to where I want to watch it over and over, but I loved every character in the film (the female lead got a little helpless at the end, but otherwise they all felt real and still bigger than life). I enjoyed the dragons and the way they integrated them in the film. The fire was real and terrifying (especially the scene where the male takes out the entire "army" in one long shot).

It feels a little
It's not just good, it's really good! I can't call it great because it doesn't draw me in to where I want to watch it over and over, but I loved every character in the film (the female lead got a little helpless at the end, but otherwise they all felt real and still bigger than life). I enjoyed the dragons and the way they integrated them in the film. The fire was real and terrifying (especially the scene where the male takes out the entire "army" in one long shot).

It feels a little slow in spots, but it's one of the better apocalyptic movies out there, and manages to be about monsters without ever losing the feeling that it's about the people.
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6:26PM on 01/31/2014

I love this movie!

It's actually one of those rare films I saw in theaters twice.I've seen it countless times since then(this is also the movie where I got to know Gerard Butler) and it still holds up. Unfortunately it does have some third act problems(mostly SPOILER ALERT!!!!!! the whole world was apparently run over by dragons, yet in the end Bale and co kill a couple of them and suddenly the whole world is rid of the beasts?!) and the biggest mistake was made in marketing. Because the poster featured dragons
It's actually one of those rare films I saw in theaters twice.I've seen it countless times since then(this is also the movie where I got to know Gerard Butler) and it still holds up. Unfortunately it does have some third act problems(mostly SPOILER ALERT!!!!!! the whole world was apparently run over by dragons, yet in the end Bale and co kill a couple of them and suddenly the whole world is rid of the beasts?!) and the biggest mistake was made in marketing. Because the poster featured dragons fighting army choppers and planes in the air, which got everyone really excited, but this never actually happens in the film. But still it deserved to do a lot better, it has some of the best looking dragons ever put on film and Rob Bowman is (and sadly will probably forever be) a very underrated director.
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3:32PM on 01/31/2014
Spoiler: I always thought the death of Denton Van Zan's character was overly forced and did not work. Van San just commits suicide in the final showdown. The obvious problem arose of Christian Bale's character (Quinn Abercromby) was written to be the victorious hero in the end, gets the woman etc. To me, Van San's character was so much more believable and better written/acted. I wanted to state that I am not opposed to killing off characters, especially Van San's. I'm just saying that his death
Spoiler: I always thought the death of Denton Van Zan's character was overly forced and did not work. Van San just commits suicide in the final showdown. The obvious problem arose of Christian Bale's character (Quinn Abercromby) was written to be the victorious hero in the end, gets the woman etc. To me, Van San's character was so much more believable and better written/acted. I wanted to state that I am not opposed to killing off characters, especially Van San's. I'm just saying that his death scene made no sense whatsoever and was terribly written as his character would not of truly done that.
"Escape from New York" Spoiler: Example: Just imagine Snake Plissken blowing his brains out minutes before getting the President over the wall at the end of "Escape from New York". Why would Snake do this? Maybe Snake does not want to feel the painful death of the virus that was injected at the start of the movie. This does not make sense because Snake is a tough guy and would not go out like this.
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2:08PM on 01/31/2014

Cool!

I always tough this film was very well directed and acted the visuals were cool too.. maybe they were aiming too high with the story but itīs a very well made film, beautifully shot.
Overall very entertaining ...way better than some blockbuster stuff like VAN HELSING and I FRANKENSTEIN
I always tough this film was very well directed and acted the visuals were cool too.. maybe they were aiming too high with the story but itīs a very well made film, beautifully shot.
Overall very entertaining ...way better than some blockbuster stuff like VAN HELSING and I FRANKENSTEIN
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+6
1:36PM on 01/31/2014
Love this movie! Most realistic dragons ever put to film.
Love this movie! Most realistic dragons ever put to film.
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1:28PM on 01/31/2014
I think the film was hurt at the boxoffice by it's potential to be a huge scale action film. The war between dragons and the modern military is dismissed with a small mention.
I think the film was hurt at the boxoffice by it's potential to be a huge scale action film. The war between dragons and the modern military is dismissed with a small mention.
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8:21AM on 01/31/2014

hell ya!

I love me some Reign of Fire. I love dragons so when this movie came out I was about 12 and it blew my mind. It's one of those movies that I watch every time it's on. I think you guys should put The Man from Nowhere or War of Arrows on this column next!
I love me some Reign of Fire. I love dragons so when this movie came out I was about 12 and it blew my mind. It's one of those movies that I watch every time it's on. I think you guys should put The Man from Nowhere or War of Arrows on this column next!
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8:20AM on 01/31/2014
The movie is a blast because of McConaughey, no question. Always thought the dragons were very well done, especially for the time.
The movie is a blast because of McConaughey, no question. Always thought the dragons were very well done, especially for the time.
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8:13AM on 01/31/2014
I love this movie. It's one of rare movies about dragons that pulled it off. Reign of Fire is so much better than that dreadful Dragon Wars a few years back.
I love this movie. It's one of rare movies about dragons that pulled it off. Reign of Fire is so much better than that dreadful Dragon Wars a few years back.
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9:47AM on 01/31/2014
Dragon Wars is hilariously misguided. Mostly hilarious.
Dragon Wars is hilariously misguided. Mostly hilarious.
9:59AM on 01/31/2014
That is true. The trailer for DVD (or at least what I saw) features the Dragon Battle climax scene at the end of the movie. I bought it and ended up going through about an hour of embarrassingly and hilariously acting before the said battle.
That is true. The trailer for DVD (or at least what I saw) features the Dragon Battle climax scene at the end of the movie. I bought it and ended up going through about an hour of embarrassingly and hilariously acting before the said battle.
10:48AM on 01/31/2014
It's a Korean film and if I'm not wrong was the highest-budgeted Korean film at the time. I swear, when I first heard about it, I totally thought it was one of those SyFy original movies.
It's a Korean film and if I'm not wrong was the highest-budgeted Korean film at the time. I swear, when I first heard about it, I totally thought it was one of those SyFy original movies.
11:36AM on 01/31/2014
It is indeed a Korean film. But you're right - it really really looks like SyFy film.
It is indeed a Korean film. But you're right - it really really looks like SyFy film.
7:56AM on 01/31/2014
There are people that didn't see Reign of Fire? It was one of the biggest movies of 2002.
There are people that didn't see Reign of Fire? It was one of the biggest movies of 2002.
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7:32AM on 01/31/2014
I spent a lot I time defending this movie to friends when it first came out. I haven't watched it in about ten years, so I think it's time to pull it off the shelf and give it anther look. I've forgotten a lot of the movie in that time, but I will never forget the line they constantly put in all the TV spots: "Two glands... In the mouth."
I spent a lot I time defending this movie to friends when it first came out. I haven't watched it in about ten years, so I think it's time to pull it off the shelf and give it anther look. I've forgotten a lot of the movie in that time, but I will never forget the line they constantly put in all the TV spots: "Two glands... In the mouth."
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7:01AM on 01/31/2014
Saw it back when it was in cinemas and loved every second of it. The dragons in Reign Of Fire have been my all-time favorite in any film, right up to last year when I saw Smaug. They're still the best non-talking dragons, though.
Saw it back when it was in cinemas and loved every second of it. The dragons in Reign Of Fire have been my all-time favorite in any film, right up to last year when I saw Smaug. They're still the best non-talking dragons, though.
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7:00AM on 01/31/2014
Its like Jaws meets How to train your Dragon in a Mad Max world.my Suggestion for a future "Best Movie You Never Saw": Black Dynamite.comedy masterpiece
Its like Jaws meets How to train your Dragon in a Mad Max world.my Suggestion for a future "Best Movie You Never Saw": Black Dynamite.comedy masterpiece
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10:05AM on 01/31/2014
Dynamite! Dynamite!
Dynamite! Dynamite!
6:28AM on 01/31/2014
Reign of Fire is an awesome film. I remember seeing it in theaters long ago and thinking how much I enjoyed it. Who would have thought Bale and McConaughey would end up being the two of the very best actors working today.

But what's most memorable to me about this film was McConaughey's character's death scene and how great and disappointing it was at the same time.
Reign of Fire is an awesome film. I remember seeing it in theaters long ago and thinking how much I enjoyed it. Who would have thought Bale and McConaughey would end up being the two of the very best actors working today.

But what's most memorable to me about this film was McConaughey's character's death scene and how great and disappointing it was at the same time.
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6:27AM on 01/31/2014
you may have never seen it but I owned it.
you may have never seen it but I owned it.
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5:31AM on 01/31/2014
I really loved the bit where Quinn and Creedy were entertaining the kids by staging their interpretation of Empire Strikes Back. It was a cute moment but it did fit very well in that world. But yeah, McConaughey went out way too easily. Suggestion for a future "Best Movie You Never Saw": Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day.
I really loved the bit where Quinn and Creedy were entertaining the kids by staging their interpretation of Empire Strikes Back. It was a cute moment but it did fit very well in that world. But yeah, McConaughey went out way too easily. Suggestion for a future "Best Movie You Never Saw": Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day.
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4:36AM on 01/31/2014
I don't know if it's been covered in this column but the film Strange Days starring Ralph Fiennes is a great underrated gem that I recommend
I don't know if it's been covered in this column but the film Strange Days starring Ralph Fiennes is a great underrated gem that I recommend
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4:30AM on 01/31/2014
I remember my dad taking me and my brother to see this when it came out. Great actions scenes and special effects my only problem is with Van Zants death. It looks cool and all but it just seemed like a dumb move. Still love the movie and watch it every couple years.
I remember my dad taking me and my brother to see this when it came out. Great actions scenes and special effects my only problem is with Van Zants death. It looks cool and all but it just seemed like a dumb move. Still love the movie and watch it every couple years.
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8:30PM on 01/31/2014
I don't know.....he's standing on top of a ladder with a dragon (the most deadly dragon) about 4 seconds away. What could he have done other than die? If he's going to die, he might as well take the crazy chance that he could stick that axe through it's skull (or maybe it's eye).

Besides, that seemed EXACTLY what that crazy SOB would have done.....
I don't know.....he's standing on top of a ladder with a dragon (the most deadly dragon) about 4 seconds away. What could he have done other than die? If he's going to die, he might as well take the crazy chance that he could stick that axe through it's skull (or maybe it's eye).

Besides, that seemed EXACTLY what that crazy SOB would have done.....
4:27AM on 01/31/2014
Good movie
Was always expecting a sequel which never came...
But 82 millions dollars worldwide is not exactly " a movie you never saw "
Good movie
Was always expecting a sequel which never came...
But 82 millions dollars worldwide is not exactly " a movie you never saw "
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