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Wednesday, August 23, 2023

‘Reign of Fire’ – Underrated Monster Movie Pit McConaughey and Bale Up Against Dragons

From fire-breathing beasts to benevolent nature spirits, dragons are present in the myths of nearly every single culture. And while popular media has mostly defaulted to traditional western fantasy drakes instead of exploring the extensive mythology behind East Asian and even Central American dragons, it makes sense that there’s an overabundance of stories featuring these legendary reptiles.

Fortunately, there are still some innovative storytellers willing to come up with fresh takes on familiar monsters, and one of my favorite draconic reinventions happens to be Rob Bowman’s post-apocalyptic creature feature Reign of Fire, an underrated early 2000s gem that was only a couple of drafts away from greatness.

While the end result was undoubtedly a product of its time, the story behind Reign of Fire begins in the mid 90s with an unrecognizable spec script written by Kevin Peterka and Gregg Chabot. This early version of the story followed monster-slaying firefighters in a world where dragons occasionally popped up like natural disasters. However, Spyglass Media would later recruit Matt Greenberg to revise the screenplay into something bigger and more action-packed, with the initial premise slowly morphing into a post-apocalyptic epic set in a world of ash as Bowman stepped in to direct.

In the finished film, a pre-Batman Christian Bale plays Quinn, the leader of a group of survivors in a dragon-infested wasteland who take refuge in the ruins of a British castle. While Quinn believes that the dragons will eventually die out on their own after having destroyed nearly every source of food, his community is soon visited by a group of American dragon-slayers (led by a lovably hammy Matthew McConaughey) who are convinced that eliminating the only male dragon is the only way to guarantee a future for mankind.

Unfortunately, it seems that Spyglass’ retooling of the script wasn’t enough to guarantee a hit, with the film underperforming at the box office while also failing to impress critics. Reign of Fire would eventually earn itself a cult following as its stars found success in other projects, but it never became the multi-media franchise that its creators had originally intended.


I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Reign of Fire is a misunderstood masterpiece, as the story isn’t very original and the muddied visuals can’t quite convey the film’s big ideas, but there’s no denying the B-movie glee that permeates the entire project. Sure, the studio-mandated rewrites may have neutered what was once a novel premise, but there are still enough flashes of brilliance here to make the experience worthwhile.

From subtle character moments like when our protagonist teams up with Gerard Butler to retell a simplified version of the end of The Empire Strikes Back to the subversion of familiar fantasy tropes, there’s plenty to love here if you can stomach some clichéd dialogue and predictable action.

The charismatic cast also does a miraculous job of elevating the material here. Christian Bale makes for a perfect no-nonsense lead, with his cautious persona really selling the idea that this man has spent his entire life knowing that humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain. In fact, he even intended to play Quinn as a realistically emaciated husk of a man until he was reminded that he would have to survive a plethora of action scenes.

That being said, Matthew McConaughey stands out as the most interesting character of the bunch, with his exaggerated gruff exterior making him a joy to watch even if his backstory and dragon-killing hijinks suggest a much more entertaining movie than the one we ultimately got.

Of course, what really makes this movie special is how it was produced during a brief period when blockbuster filmmaking still allowed for the construction of stylized sets and costumes while only relying on CGI for what was truly impossible. This means that, while the story was still disappointingly by-the-numbers, the film still benefited from a somber personality that simply couldn’t be replicated by green screens.


Reign of Fire dragons

Did I mention that this film is about dragons?

Reign of Fire expertly depicts its antagonists as horrific forces of nature, with the film’s characters fearing the silhouette of their wings much like a Kansas native might fear the initial gusts of a tornado. Sure, there’s no real gore when the beasts attack (mostly due to the fact that these dragons tend to burn their victims to a crisp before ingesting them), but the predatory mannerisms of these giant man-eaters more than makes up for that.

And while I would have preferred it if the filmmakers had used more practical effects during the dragon attacks, it’s worth noting that the biological design of these monsters was so effective that it’s still being reused today in modern media, with everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones taking inspiration from this twenty-year-old monster movie when it comes to making dragons seem believable.

The post-apocalyptic setting itself is also horrific enough on its own, with this ashen hellscape making it clear that life is only barely worth living at this point. The film may focus on its proposed mash-up of fantasy storytelling and modern cinematic action, but it’s the impeccable set design and ashen visuals that make this experience memorable.

Again, Reign of Fire isn’t trying to reinvent the monster movie wheel, relying on (literally) age-old tropes to tell its familiar story, but this post-apocalyptic epic is still far more entertaining than it has any right to be. While I would still like to see another film tackle the original version of this screenplay, I still appreciate the draconic action that we got – which is why I think the gray world of Reign of Fire is still worth revisiting over two decades later.

There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.

The post ‘Reign of Fire’ – Underrated Monster Movie Pit McConaughey and Bale Up Against Dragons appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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