Thursday, October 21, 2004

Review: "Reign of Fire" (2002)

When discussing actors who make physical changes in order to play a movie role, most people point to the 60 pounds put on by Robert De Niro for "Raging Bull". On the other side of this coin is what audiences will see when "The Machinist" premiers later this month. Christian Bale, in order to play insomniac Trevor Reznik, looks positively emaciated after having lost 60 pounds for the role. That's commitment to your craft, and I expect nothing less from Bale as he's one of my favorite actors. But I have to wonder if he might have been inspired by a past costar when making such a complete physical change.

Which brings me to "Reign of Fire". The year is 2020, and it's the end of the world. Bale plays Quinn, the leader of a community of refugees holed up inside a derelict castle in northern England. The world didn't end by nuclear annihilation or biological plague, but rather the re-emergence of dragons. Once the first one was unleashed beneath London, they multiplied like mad and scorched the earth. Quinn's people are struggling and starting to lose hope when a line of tanks rumble towards their gates. Led by Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), they are an American group of Nation Guard troops who have traveled across the ocean to find the spot where it all started, for they have a plan to end the reign of dragons for good.

When I reviewed "The Saint" yesterday, I mentioned that Val Kilmer's disguises were used more for comic effect and were not all that convincing. I probably shouldn't be so hard on him for this, as it is probably because audiences know the actor's face so well. However, I'm willing to bet that many people who first saw McConaughey in the trailer for "Reign of Fire" could not peg him as the same man who played Jake Brigance in "A Time to Kill". McConaughey is shaved bald with a scruffy goatee and chomping on a cigar butt. He wears a sleeveless bomber jacket, which shows off the numerous tattoos on his incredibly muscular arms. He's about as far from the Mississippi lawyer as you can get (well, except for the cigar).

His performance matches his looks as he bravely leads his men, and he isn't afraid to charge straight into the danger when he's needed. He strikes a sharp contrast with Quinn, who is quieter in his leadership than Van Zan. Both actors approach their roles as two men who want the same thing but have radically different approaches to accomplish it. They are also shown to be brave leaders who care deeply about the people under their charge. As a result, Van Zan doesn't come off as a megalomaniac and Quinn is not portrayed as a weak.

The real villains, of course, are the dragons themselves, and they look very good here. One of the most exciting sequences is when Van Zan's team demonstrates their method for killing dragons. It involves a helicopter and a trio of skydivers armed with nets. I have some quibbles with the practicality of these methods (the dragon in this scene is eventually dispatched with by more conventional means), but it gives the movie a chance to showcase the dragons in flight high among the clouds. It's a great action scene and is also emblematic of the unique visual sense of the film.

The film ends up bringing to mind a number of different genres through the set design and plot. The dragons are obviously a fantasy element, and this is reinforced by the refugees choosing a medieval castle as their home for defense. With the grey landscape and the plethora of ash covering both buildings and people, you at times feel like you're watching a coal mining drama. The coal mine resemblance is also brought to mind by the group's use of a stationary hawk (just as miners used canaries to detect gas leaks) as a warning signal that a dragon is approaching. Also, the images of British women and children going deep underground during attacks have shades of London during the Blitz to them. WWII also comes easily to mind as we watch the British and Americans band together to fight a common enemy.

The finale didn't have the punch I was hoping for in terms of excitement, but this was made up for by all that came before. This is a very solid end-of-the-world fantasy film, and very distinctive from the many other entries in the genre. And, acting wise, it features a pair of men who are willing to go all the way for the success of a project, much like the characters they portray.

Eight out of Ten

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