Monday Movie: Reign of Fire
Given where their careers are now, it’s hard to imagine Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale teaming up to fight dragons in a slightly upmarket take on a guts and grit B-movie. Bale has taken an unlikely path to prestige-pic gravitas by riding a superhero’s capetails and McConaughey has spent the last few years burning his way through every cool project in TV and movies. But in 2002, Bale was still trying to establish a foothold as a viable adult actor and McConaughey was hoping to balance his reputation as a romcom leading man with big-budget action flicks (the noxious Sahara would put an end to that). In short, both were in positions where they could afford the stink of a lowbrow genre piece like Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire. Bale’s Quinn Abercromby has become the pragmatic protector of a band of survivors in a near-future England that has, like the rest of the planet, been ravaged after the awakening of long-dormant dragons. McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan is the braggadocious leader of a militaristic group of American dragon fighters who come to the not-so-welcome rescue. Bowman’s action sequences are brawny and straightforward, utilitarian without losing their thrill. And the production design is something to behold. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach results in a terrifying, ash and rubble vision of a postindustrial middles ages. There’s a delightful, anachronistic rush when helicopters show up. But Bowman’s real skill is holding onto the characters amongst it all. McConaughey gets to wield his familiar soulful bro schtick in a new milieu and Bale is allowed to be more vulnerable and indecisive than his later alpha characters. Both actors have risen to undeniable prominence in the dozen years since Reign of Fire but I still wonder, when they’re contending with green screens and tennis balls representing black holes or the waves of the Red Sea, do they sense the shadows of dragons?