The big news this week is the Brexit, the UK voting to leave the European Union. No one knows exactly what that will mean for Great Britain, but everyone is freaking out. Some are afraid it will mean financial ruin, others say the entire EU will start to collapse as more nations decide to leave. It’s all doom and gloom speculation, but I think everyone can agree on the most likely outcome: England will be destroyed by dragons. You only have to look as far as the 2002 eerily prescient drama REIGN OF FIRE to see the writing (and scorch marks) on the wall.
Young Quinn (not Christian Bale) is visiting his mum working at an Underground tunnel expansion site when the driller opens up an ancient cave full of hibernating dragons. The dragons waste no time in destroying England and spreading throughout the world. Twenty years later, Quinn (now Christian Bale) is leading a group of survivors holed up in a crumbling castle. They scrounge for food, entertain the kids by reenacting the works of George Lucas, and keep their heads down. Their meager existence is interrupted by the appearance of an American military team lead by Van Zan (a bald, bearded, badass Matthew McConaughey). He and his crew of dragon slayers are hunting the only male dragon left in existence. If they can cap him, the species comes to an end and humanity is saved. Against Quinn’s advice, the Americans, plus a few of Quinn’s people, head toward the man-dragon’s nest in London. Things do not go well for anyone who is not fireproof. To save the rest of Quinn’s group, he and Van Zan must team up and stage a suicide mission straight into the mouth of the beast. Not a metaphor, by the way.
As far as apocalypse stories go, this is a novel one. Dragons are almost always confined to fantasy settings, or at least magical ones, so seeing dragons battling helicopters is a nice twist. The movie does have a bit of a medieval feel to it, though. Quinn’s bastion of civilization is an old castle, and without modern conveniences like electricity, running water, and not being melted by dragon fire, the survivors live a pretty primitive lifestyle. Leading this crew is a rough job for Quinn. It’s hard to make sure everyone has enough to eat when every passing dragon sees the guy working in the garden as a grilled chicken salad. He tries to keep everyone in line, healthy, and working together. Luckily, he has a strong right hand man in Creedy, who I completely forgot was played by Gerald Butler, a few years before his break-out role in 300.
Butler wasn’t the only face I recognized on my latest re-watch. In the scene where Quinn and Creedy are reenacting the “I am your father” scene from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, in costume and with props like it was Shakespeare, the camera pans over the audience of spellbound kids.
Holy shit, it’s Lil’ Joffrey! At first I thought I was just reading into it, but later he gets this regal shot…
IMDB confirms that, yes, it’s a tiny Jack Gleeson, 9 years away from his role as the terrible boy-king in Game of Thrones. This kid cannot get enough dragons. Whatever you do, Quinn, make sure that little fucker does not become the leader of your group. He does not make good decisions.
Fellow GOT cast member Alexander Siddig is also in this as the radio operator/early warning falconer Ajay. It's like a reunion. Retroactively.
Quinn’s style of leadership is through reason, not force. He opts to avoid conflict with the scaly uglies at all cost. Even the kids’ prayers are customized to reflect this. It boils down to watch the skies and hide at the first sign of trouble. This philosophy is put to the test with the arrival of Matthew McConaughey’s American militia. It’s a ridiculously stereotypical match-up between British and US, right down to the names. Denton Van Zan vs. Quinn Abercrombie. It might as well have been Joe Eagle and Reginald Arthur Tallyho. The Americans are rough and ready; looking for trouble. Van Zan comes rolling into the castle on a tank, straddling a huge machine gun. It is not a subtle image. He immediately riles up the camp, impressing everyone with his tales of killing dragons rather than hiding from them. He and his (Swedish) US Cavalry helicopter pilot, Alex (Izabella Scorupco), have this crazy tactic of skydiving at flying dragons and netting them in the air. He claims it works, though the one time we get to see it in action he looses three men and nearly gets everyone else killed. Maybe it was an off day. Interestingly, even though he has all these advanced weapons, he takes out the dragon with a harpoon gun. He even carries around a giant axe. The high tech toys just get in the way. I’m surprised he didn’t try to wrestle the dragon.
The dragons are impressive and threatening and all, but the real show stopper is the inevitable throw down between two super intense mega-actors like Bale and McConaughey. Quinn valiantly tries to hold on to reason while dealing with the grim, arrogant, occasionally megalomaniacal Van Zan. He finally snaps when Van Zan conscripts some of the camp members to join his hunt for the male dragon. The physical fight is quick and brutal, but it’s the screaming and posturing that makes it so entertaining. Bale and McConaughey are like rival baboons on angel dust. Their shouting quickly devolves beyond intelligible words. I was expecting McConaughey’s skull to pop right out of his skin in furious rage. Those guys were just shy of human nuclear detonation. If a dragon had come up at that point, it would have quietly backed away while avoiding eye contact, suddenly remembering it had some shit to do across town.
That scene aside, the dragons do make formidable adversaries. They are surprisingly well designed, especially for 2002, when CGI could still be a bit wonky. They don’t have the detail of a fancy Game of Thrones dragon, but I was never distracted or pulled out of the moment by their appearance. They have a (very) loosely scientific anatomy, fitting with their non-magic origins. There are visible ducts in their mouths for spitting the flammable liquid that becomes their fire breath. I couldn’t tell what ignites it, since young Quinn got a face full of the stuff without becoming a bonfire, but I liked the way it would flare up as it dripped from a dragon’s mouth onto the floor. It’s plausible that enough of these things could wipe out most life on Earth, especially since the military powers seem to have haphazardly and ineffectively attacked them with nukes. Quinn’s narration implies that it was really the dragons that caused all the great extinction events in the world’s history. After they roasted the dinosaurs, they hunkered down in caves and waited for the Earth to replenish itself.
The science does get a bit dodgy, aside from the fact that they are, you know, dragons. The movie claims that they eat ash, even though we only ever see them chowing down on people or each other. They are apparently immortal, because the one young Quinn bumped into in the cave was fully grown. They aren’t immune to fire, since they can be burnt or blown up, but they don’t have a problem emitting a few thousand degrees of flame from their mouths. The most ridiculous bit is their reproductive cycle. Van Zan claims that, like fish, the female dragons lay tons of eggs and the male flies over and fertilizes them (thankfully not shown). According to Van Zan, there is only one male dragon (he must have gotten a hold of their census records). If this is true, it is a serious evolutionary design flaw for a seemingly immortal species. One accident and boom, there goes your species. On the other hand, it makes that one guy very popular. Well as it happens, ladies, I am the last man-dragon on Earth.
Like all the best movies, it kind of apes the ending of JAWS. [SPOILERtown] After losing Van Zan’s army and a good chunk of Quinn’s castle folk to the man-dragon, Quinn, Van Zan, and Alex head back to London for one last, desperate crack at the beast in the ruins of London. Luckily for them, the starving stud has eaten all the other dragons. Now that I think about it, it was probably getting ready to hibernate again for a few million years. If the dragon slayer crew had just waited a few days and avoided London, everything would have been fine. Of course, waiting for it to go to sleep isn’t exactly a satisfying ending, so I’m happy they went with the final showdown. Like Hooper, Alex is used as bait and makes a white knuckle escape. Van Zan gets an awesome, Quint-style death. When he misses his shot with an explosive crossbow bolt, he takes out his axe and leaps off the building, in defiance, at the dragon. In slow motion, of course. The dragon swallows him in one bite. Quinn gets a nice “Smile, you son of a bitch” moment. It’s slightly understated, but I liked it.
Director Rob Bowman is mainly known for TV work (a familiar refrain on movies I write about), including quite a lot of X-Files. It seems to be his preferred medium, since he only did one theatrical feature before this (THE X-FILES: THE MOVIE) and one after (ELECTRA). That’s a solid two out of three record. He brings just the right tone to this one. It’s an absurd concept that everyone plays straight. Bale and McConaughey are good enough actors to be intense without becoming campy. There is just enough character humor (especially from Gerald Butler) to keep it from getting too grim. And while they did not specifically use the word “Brexit” in the film, this movie is a pretty clear indicator of the way things are now going. Nice one, England. Now if you will excuse me, I need to grab an asbestos suit and a giant axe and get ready for the dracopocalypse.