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Reign Of Fire

review by Zach B. and Anthony D.

 

 

Rating: PG-13 (For Intense Action Violence)

Running Time: 102 minutes

Starring: Matthew McCounaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco, Gerald Butler

Screenplay by: Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg
Story by: Gregg Chabot & Kevin Peterka

Directed by: Rob Bowman

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Breathing Life Into The Terror, Below The Line: If You Can't Take The Heat..., Conversations With Rob Bowman, Theatrical Trailer, Sneak Peeks. DVD-ROM: Register Your DVD

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (11 Scenes)

Released: November 19th, 2002

 

 

From it sly, tongue-in-cheek title, I was nearly certain that "Reign of Fire" would turn out to be one of those ceaseless, purposeless, loud and obnoxious retreads of popular horror films. Imagine my surprise when I encounted a film which could have easily been made in the 1960's, but without the benefits of computer-generated-imagery. I was constantly reminded of the compatriotioc bonding flicks made by Howard Hawks, as "Reign of Fire" predominantly gives us a tight-knit group of characters, with a strong leader, whose very existence is shaken up by the appearance of an outsider. Forget about the dragons, beleivable though they may be, they are merely a MacGuffin used to set up the community's remoteness, this superior film from former "The X Files" director Rob Bowman, finds its true values when it explores the characters, and their reaction to change.

A gripping prologue introduces us to an adolescent Quinn (Ben Thorton, who gets to grow up into Christian Bale) visiting his mother's (a sadly underused Alice Krige) worksite in the London Underground of the present day. The prologue owes just enough to 1968's "Quartermass and the Pit" aka "Five Million Years to Earth" as is legally possibly without danger of plagiarizing. In the 1968 feature, an alien lifeform embedded in a space ship is discovered buried in the transit system, in "Reign of Fire," it's a male, fire-breathing dragon. Through the use of news photos, and a little voice over narration, we learn that the discovery of this dragon's lair led to a wide-spread, near-apocalyptic scourge of dragons, which wiped out most of Europe's capitals (and later in the film we learn of the dragons in Kansas). Bowman's choice to present this particular reign of fire in this method, rather than consuming precious time with multiple shots of death and destructions, points out his directoral commitment to making a fast, efficient HUMAN film - following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Hawks, among others.

Cut to castle in ruins in the Northumberland area of England, where Quinn now rules over a band of survivors, a ragtag group of misfits joined together through their dragon-fear who eat, drink, sleep and work as a commune. Two very nice touches are a chant taught to the surviving children as a prayer and a talisman; and an adopted son for Quinn - for what would a Hawks-like film be without an adoptive family conflict? (One needs only to look at the relationship between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in "Red River" to see this relationship at its fullest). The castle really doesn't contain all of the niceties of hearth and home, home theater there consists of re-enactments for the children's pleasure of "The Empire Strikes Back's" climactic duel between Darth Vader and Luke - herein tackled comedically by Bale and Gerald Butler as his right-hand man, Creedy. Before the arrival of a possible savior, a renegade group heedlessly sally forth from the castle (I've always wanted to say that - Sally forth from the castle) with disastrous results. We see just how violent the attack of a single dragon can be as several of Quinn's men meet a fiery finale.

Then, salvation appears from the sky. An American dragonslayer, a marine to boot, and his own commune of "arch-angels" appears in the form of Matthew McConaughey's Vin Van of the "Kentucky Irregulars." And with one fell swoop, the film's action sequences begin. A fist-fight between Quinn and Van. A debacle of a dragon-snaring expedition. A divided community must choose sides. Face certain death in the confines of the castle, OR join the militia of Vin Van and take to the scorched streets of London to kill the male dragon. The crusade will bring all underlying emotions and committments to a head, and give the viewer a showdown in London town not easily ignored.

There is so much in "Reign of Fire" that I admire, but first and foremost, I've gotta say that McConaughey's Vin Van is one of the best characterizations I have seen from this actor. He owns the screen from the moment his feet set down on the grey-soaked stones of Northumberland, to the line "Only one thing worse than dragons - Americans." Yet, this is not an Us versus Them pic, not even a U.S. versus U.K.; for "Reign of Fire" is about two opposing factions who must join together in one common goal, and the journey they must take before they can become an "Us" to take a stand against "Them," with "Them" being the dragons.

And, oh, here there be dragons. Smoothly accomplished through CGI effects, these swooping creatures sail suavely across the clouded skies. This isn't Sean Connery dragon territory. These fierce creatures are given scientifically sound (well, they sounded sound to me) rationale for their "fire-breathing." Something along the lines of two glands, each secreting a different chemical, that when in conjunction create fire! Now, that's scientific, right? Also, the scientific hypothesis that it is a singular male dragon fertilizing the thousands of eggs is quite unusual, since we only see that particular male at the beginning and the end of the film. Add to that the fact that these dragons are seemlessly integrated into the film. BUT, there should be more of them, as excellent as they are. The inspired look of the film is quite nice, too. It's a very dark world these survivors inhabit, and the cinematography amply presents this world in cold, gloomy shades of blues and grays.

Don't go into "Reign of Fire" with high expectations for an action/adventure flick or you'll be sorely disappointed. The marketing may have presented it as such, but it is really a film with a strong statement about humanity - the dragons are just the icing on the cake.

 

"Reign Of Fire" is presented in a near flawless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Disney usually tends to deliver rather strong transfers on day and date releases, and "Reign Of Fire" is no exception. Detail is rather solid, black levels are strong and the muted pallette that is soaked in grays and blues with only some hints of reds not only capture the look and feeling of the film rather nicely, but everything is well saturated too. Shadow detail is excellent as well, while I didn't notice any edge enhancment either. Still, despite its strengths, the transfer has some shimmering here and there, edge halos, some scratches and quite a few blemishes. None of that gets in the way too much though, as this is still a solid transfer.

 

With "Reign Of Fire" being a film long on action, you can do no wrong by hyping yourself up for the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 sound mixes. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, while the rather intriguing and well composed score from Edward Shearmur has strong mixing throughout the channels. Still, the many and large variety of sound effects make the tracks what they are. Every little thing sounds quite wonderful and really captures you into the film. Smaller sounds like footsteps, people calling from the backgrounds or lighting of the fires really use creative mixing. Still, it's the bigger sounds like the roars of the dragons, the fighting, the weapons and much more when it comes to the action where the track also tends to shine.

Like many times before, I had trouble choosing a preference between the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks. Both are quite good, so no one should mind whichever one they happen to listen to. Still, I found the DTS mix a bit stronger. At times I felt it was a bit more full and captured me even more into the film. Also included is a Dolby Digital 5.1 French track, as well as English subtitles, Spanish subtitles and English closed captions through your television set.

 

It's not loaded, but there are a few things here for "Reign of Fire" fans. There are three featurettes on the disc. The first, Breathing Life Into The Terror, lasts a good eight and a half minutes. Opening with the theatrical trailer, you just know this is your standard EPK material fluffed with interviews, more film clips and on-the-set footage. Or is it? Director Bob Bowman, visual effects supervisor Richard Hoover, Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, creature supervisor Rob Dressel, co-visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, technical supervisor Hank Driskill, compositing supervisor Blaine Kennison and producer Roger Birnbaum get their say in about the dragons. But judging from those who talk, you can tell this is more technical in nature. Basically, creating the dragons, inspirations and how it all came together is the focus here. It's not too technical, making it a decent watch for the mere casual fan. It's actually rather interesting as footage from the set, real animals, rough CGI and more are shown off in how all the special effects and little details came together. While I'm not sure Birnbaum's testament that the dragons are "very gritty" and "very real" is so accurate (the things don't exist!), this is definitely a nice watch if you liked the movie.

Below The Line: If You Can't Take The Heat... is in full frame and lasts fifteen minutes. Much of this featurette focuses on day 80 of shooting in Ireland, where special effects supervisor Dave Gauthier helps rig a major action scene and then shooting of all of it. There really isn't a straightforward narrative to this featurette, which might be a turn off to some, but I'm always fascinated with behind-the-scenes footage so I really enjoyed this. It's nicely edited and nicely paced, and you get a good sense of how hard and challenging it is to make a film like "Reign Of Fire." This is a must watch. Completed film clips are also included for comparisons, and two other scenes and some making of those are shown as well. Subtitles also pop up here and there explaining the pyrotechnic work.

It's not a commentary, but you get nearly 12 minutes of Conversations With Rob Bowman. The director of the film talks about his career, namely his passion for directing "The X-Files." Despite that, Bowman talks about his directing techniques, what he wanted to accomplish in "Reign Of Fire" and how he staged certain scenes. Bowman is quite passionate here, and you can only wish that he do an audio commentary for the film itself. I really enjoyed this featurette, as you can tell that Bowman loves what he does and knows what he's doing. Also included is a ton of behind-the-scenes footage, clips from the movie (in non-anamorphic widescreen) and some stills throughout. Very cool.

After all of that, there really isn't much. For you DVD-ROM users, you can Register Your DVD (a staple now with Disney DVDs). Everything else is trailers. You have your Theatrical Trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen and some pretty impressive Dolby surround sound, and under Sneak Peeks there are trailers for the 2002 "The Count Of Monte Cristo," "Bad Company," the "Reign Of Fire" video game and the wonderful Disney/SquareSoft Playstation 2 RPG "Kingdom Hearts."

 

"Reign Of Fire" may have top talent in harmless B-movie style fun, but this is an excellent disc for those who want to show off their home theaters and for fans of the film. The supplements do satisfy, the Dolby Digital and DTS sound mixes breathe a wondrous amount of life and the anamorphic widescreen transfer looks excellent. If you're interested, it's definitely worth a rental. If you like the film an insane amount though, then it's worth checking out.