RIORI Vol 3, Installment 27: Rob Bowman’s “Reign Of Fire” (2002)


The Players…

Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Butler and Izabella Scorupco, with David Kennedy, Ben Thornton and Alice Krige.

The Story…

Rudely awoken from the depths of London, an incredibly dangerous, powerful force has been released by man. The consequences soon become beyond dire, threatening the whole of the populace.

What’s happened? Fault lines tearing up earthquakes? Sinkholes consuming the high rises? Busted gas lines ready to blow?

Something is ready to blow, all right. Dragons. Left slumbering for millennia and drilled out of there creche, the creatures now strike out at any living thing, burning them to cinders in their wake. Cities fall. People flee to the four winds only later to be devoured. Once proud metropolises teeming with both people and technology are now killing jars so the beasts may feed. Humanity will surely be wiped out by these once thought mythological monsters unless by some miracle can stop them.

And you thought sewer rats were bad.

The Rant…

This one’s gonna get a bit goofy. But hey now, we all a little mad now and then.

That being said, it’s time to get hooked up to the ol’ nostalgia Cuisinart again.

*attaches probes to the temples*

There. Hold still. Struggling will only make it hurt more. Bite down. That’s better. Care for a latte?

Speaking of lattes, we’re gonna truck it back a few decades to the 90s when ‘ere blogger was but a wisp of a teen.

*tightens restraints*

Ah. I see you know this bit. My soapbox, my words. That’s what you came here for in the first place. Right? Well, that and the cookies. So here’s my cookie.

When I was a teen in the early 90s, most of the TV shows I followed with any regularity were S/F programs. Shows like Star Trek: TNG,  Quantum Leap and The X-Files. If you know anything about sentence structure my volunteer, you’ve probably figured out that the last show is the raison d’être for our rant today. Quite right. Here, have another cookie.

Barring the latest reboot (ugh) of that seminal series, the original X-Files was the next logical step/spawn from a classic 80s “weird happenings” program, Unsolved MysteriesX-Files creator Chris Carter must have dubbed the entire series run onto VHS for his personal library. With Robert Stack’s creviced face and sonorous growl explaining the dangers of UFO abductions and playing around in God’s domain birthed the goofy, wily, spooky hijinks for Mulder and Scully to muck about in.

The X-Files also had a very simple premise, too. It was basically a police procedural in The Twilight Zone. Two FBI agents—one a believer, the other a skeptic—investigated “strange incidents” that are just barely within the Bureau’s jurisdiction. Or plausible denial (the votes read mostly the latter). Things like UFOs, cryptozoology, technology run amok, all buttered with endless conspiracy theories. It was great, chewy, cheesy B-movie fun. Fox Mulder was eerily funny—a true believer, if you will, if not an enthusiast for such weird investigtions—and Dana Scully was like the chick in the slasher flick that investigates the noise in the basement wielding only a candle (while we at home scream at her to run or get a goddam flashlight at least, Praise Jeebus). She got scared real good a lot. Good times alone with the tube.

Yep. I was an X-Files fan in them teenage stone age days. Every Friday on Fox, well before their pagan news channel, I’d plop down in front of the tube for an hour and simultaneously giggle and shiver. At least for the first season or so. The novelty got pissed away rather quickly. It wasn’t the show got bad (‘tho there were a-plenny of clunky eps) or plot lines got too convoluted (that came later), but I felt that the series started to take itself way too seriously. Like the investigations Mulder and Scully tackled were akin to the Rosenberg case. No. It was about aliens, werewolves and conspiracies. And feeling spooked. That’s all. The winking silliness of the show slowly gave way to a feeling of DIRE UPMOST IMPORTANCE. Conspiracies within conspiracies. Humor waning. It was almost like being delivered some Scientology sermon each Friday night, like America needed to hear the gospel according to Cancer Man. The X-Files was a cult show that (almost) spawned a for real cult. Or at least tried to. Not sure why. Weird.

In short, X-Files started to preach a gospel, and it quit being entertaining. What was a fictionalized version of Unsolved Mysteries morphed into a manifesto for paranoid freaks and geeks everywhere in TV land. That was when I turned off the TV. Wasn’t fun anymore; crawled up its ass. But, hey. I can’t deny some of those early eps of X-Files were indeed high-end fun and steeped in classic B-movie sensibilities. Sometimes more than a  liberal bit o’ creepy, too. And the writers weren’t ever afraid got downright weird with their scripts (Fringe caged a lot of their ideas from X). The weirdness later on in the series, which started as a hook, devolved into either weirdness for weirdness’ sake or a case of the writer’s putting themselves into a corner. Kinda like that abandoned farmhouse the survivors holed themselves up in Night Of The Living Dead.

Of course the original! You f*cking churlish, hipster Philistines you.

Hey, that reminds me. An X-Files episode that addressed weirdness, isolation and the apex of what the show’s writers could pull off. It was called “Gender Bender.” It was most unsettling. Maybe you saw it too. Something about a sex cult but not a sex cult but more of a murder bordello but maybe more. Sex sells, y’know, and it sold me (the little hothead post-puber I was). It also sold me on gender identification, and how subjective it was. I was f*cking 13Prime moment, wrong viewer. Still it stirred the soup enough to get my attention to later scour Wikipedia about the what-the-f*ck machinations that went into that mind wipe. One of the things I uncovered was that some upstart TV writer X-Files enthusiast directed that episode, and hand thumb deep in its writing also.

*subject writhes under its restraints, odor of pee detected*

His name was Rob Bowman. He later directed the X-Files big screen jump, Fight The Future. That movie stunk. A fevered dream written by a fanboy assuming the general/casual X-File loved the series as much as he did. The center did not hold. But his left-of-center panache for making flavored TV eps for other shows as well as a handful of big screen schlockfests barfed onto his resume. Most of it turned out to be entertaining. Not first season X-Files entertaining. Definitely not Fight The Future entertaining (which was, at heart, just a high concept/high budget long continuation of the TV series). But it all was in good fun. That’s what matters, right?

*shoves powdered donut into subject’s face*

*smiles, gives thumbs up*

Right. So despite his weird track record, Bowman knows a thing or three about mutated S/F stories. “Gender Bender” got a lot of flack back then for its probing commentary about sexual identity. On a prime time, highly-rated TV show, no less! This was the 90s. Internet hookups—all five of them—still squawked when you dialed in. The Earth was still reeling after Cobain ate a shotgun salad. F*cking Clinton was trying to woo Gen X into voting for him by playing a flat sax version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on Arsenio’s show (between his takes for voice-acting on “The Real Ghostbusters”). Yep, the 90s were weird, and since we don’t talk about gender politics anymore, Bowman’s effort was for naught. His work is on the shelf with moldering My Mother, The Car scripts.

Quit squirming. What?

What’s that about this S/F drama the guy shot? As director? Not like Fight…no not like that, huh?

Did you say dragons? Lemme remove that. Sounds interesting, kinda like being pulled from Carter’s canon.

No f*cking? Strike one. But it’s weird, huh? Not too far removed from the series’ feel? Hmm. These dragons aliens I hope?

Be honest and you’ll get another donut. Jelly this time…

It’s just lunch.

Young Quinn (Thornton) simply does his after school ritual to check up on his mum. A simple brown paper bag (there might be an apple in there) is his bait. His mum (Krige) is his quarry. For insufferable weeks the woman has been managing a very uncooperative vein that could either wreck or ruin the underground project. Quinn being Quinn scuttles off to see what the hold-up is. After being prodded by a loutish digger, Quinn crawls into what looks like an antechamber, oddly warm. When he gets some sort of volatile acid spat into his face he quickly, fearfully runs for his dear life. Those wings. That roar. That fire.

Old Quinn (Bale) has been keeping on it since then. It was a dragon, and very little of the thing resides in mythology. It was a fire-breathing abomination. One of many. Thousands. That digging woke up the alpha. Years bore on from that rebirth, and the Earth burned for it. Sure, several pockets of humanity are trying to eke out an existence obeying the new nature of fire and consumption versus crops and not getting incinerated. Sustenance against survival; one cannot exist hand in hand anymore. The flying furnaces will just torch it all if it displeases them. All Quinn can do to fight back is keep the many orphans under his wing to be orphans for another day.

Then one day, those damned tanks roll into Quinn and his family’s fortress/plantation. That day he had a plan. Quinn has been a scholar of dragons. He knows how to hide. He understands what to conserve. He knows how to defend. He knows a day will come when a vile dragon will torch his fragile existence to the coals. But those damned tanks.

A Yank by the name of VanZandt (McConaughey) has arrived with his elite, maverick, totally unorthodox dragon fighters (backed by a phalanx of worn-out, 20th Century tanks and curiously decked out choppers) to save the day at Quinn’s compound. Van claims to know how to take out the alpha dragon’s nest deep in London with his arsenal, and has learned Quinn knows the nature of the beasties. He presses a pseudo-pascifict Quinn into helping him, ghost of mum or no. Yes, these monsters have torn Earth asunder. But does aggression really work against even more aggressive monsters? All they do it eat, fly, burn, eat again and occasionally piss petrol. Really, getting pissed in the eyes by a dragon as a lad is one thing. So says Quinn.

There is no other thing. Just dig deep, dig hard and watch the skies.

And keep on track of what’s left over from lunch…

Now then, let me unlock that mouthpiece. Ah.


*insert donut, apply herbal massage*

There we go. Thanks for your patience. When you come to, you’re gonna need some patience to crawl through Reign Of Fire. No worries. It’s not that bad a movie. But you gotta have your brakes checked beforehand, and not for a lack of road safety. Chill out; dragons don’t drive.

Reign has Bowman back in his oeuvre. This indeed a B-movie for sure, make no bones about it. But now our dear director has a larger budget and even big name stars at his command. We know the man flexed his muscles with The X-Files already, and it shows here. Unlike Fight The Future, Reign illustrates his CV in a proper way. Also unlike Future, this film has a very sharp feel. Crisp and purposeful. It bounces along with a sense of urgency that all sci-fi/action/dragon epics should aspire to. That is, until we gotta apply some brushstrokes from the multihued palate of drama. But that’s for later on. The hazy fog of mystery still clouds Reign, but now its used as atmospherics and not bowing to some established plot device.

But me being ever so contrary, the funny thing when watching Reign is even with its dire nature and bleak outlook, it didn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic disaster. It felt like a typical X-Files ep. I know, I know. I’ve already hammered this to death, but a tiger cannot chew off its stripes. Reign’s a big deal X if there ever was one, but since Bowman’s strength lay in TV his sensibilities it’s natural to have that bleed onto the big screen. In Reign‘s case, it’s blissfully (still only mostly) separate from the wagon train the director once hitched himself to. Our show’s still weird, but stylishness remains, and that is a good thing. If the only thing you walk away with from seeing Reign is a satisfaction of seeing people in peril against an otherworldly foe trying to reaffirm their dwindling sense of humanity. Cheers?

Want another donut yet?

By this point, my installment must seem pretty limp. I ain’t dismantling Reign as I have other towering achievements of boom and blast that have wandered into my BD player’s vision. It’s okay. We can’t always have vivisection regarding Scorsese’s Casino (it was too long) some other time. Reign was a goof, a big smash and grab action film. A film almost specifically designed for RIORI. So if you haven’t connected the dots yet, it’s time to let the scales fall from your accursed hipster eyes. Never fear, I’ll still try to fart in your general direction if you follow.

*straightens tie*

I’ll reel it in. Been much too perilous. Sallie forth.

If you’ve been a sharp tack, you’ve probably figured out that this installment regards Reign as a very roughhewn, silly film. After all, name the last dragon-flavored action flick that wasn’t a tad silly? Correct. Reign is no exception. A lot of that silliness stems from the plot. The concept of dragons roaming the earth after hibernating for millennia—also in turn trying to validate the creatures reason for existing—is straight out of a comic book. I know we’re not aiming for historical and/or scientific accuracy here. What would be the point? It’s all about the delivery that makes Reign unintentionally funny. I’m not complaining, not really. But it’s hard to take an action movie like this seriously when it takes itself  seriously, you dig? It always comes crashing down into nuttiness that way.

Yet for its goofiness, Reign maintains a sense of style. Hell, if the plot is wonky, you better make the world of it interesting. And there are quite a few novel things going on here that’ll grab your attention. For me, I really dug the set designs. There were a lot of nice touches Bowman spattered here and there. Despite this film is supposed to delve into Road Warrior territory, the British countryside still looks pristine. Wait. Not pristine exactly. Medieval. This is a dragon dragon flick, right? And the world has gone off the grid. Only thing to do is band together for survival. The interiors of the buildings are grim, dank warrens of low light and desperation. No one looks very 21st Century. Hard to when you’re always under the threat of a siege, slapping together very DIY defenses. The cinematography is nice, and does a good job of conveying the world as alternating between Dark Ages and the firebombing. Very clever work, Bowman. Set the mood, set the style.

Now. Let’s talk casting. We’re already in agreement that Reign is absurd. One best have on hand a bunch of actors that can bind the pudding. Again, we succeed here. Subject one, our hero Quinn. Christian Bale’s a good actor, although no one you’d ever think be hand-picked for an action movie. He’s our everyman here, our avatar for traversing this ashy world. There’s a nice twist about personal responsibility driving our lead (not to mention his exhaustive research about his winged foes), which makes him sympathetic. Also, the reluctant hero schtick is guaranteed to make the star our bud for as long as the movie lasts. Sometimes, ever better, afterwards. So yeah, Bale did well with what was handed him.

It’s a law in the annals of literature that characters must be likable. Bzzzt. Wrong. Do not pass Go, do not collect your senses. Characters must be relatable. Moreover, they should be interesting. So Subject two, Quinn’s foil VanZandt. I think McConaughey was coming out of his starving years with Reign. Either that or he had a hankering to play someone who was kinda nuts and in need of Rogaine. VanZandt is a rather offensive creature, sometimes dipping into a caricature redolent of one too many Escape From New York weirdos. But he is interesting (and maybe the only intentional comic relief in this picture) if only for the fact Matt portrayed him. All scruffy and growly, waxing philosophical about how to handle the little dragon issue, VanZandt chomps cigars and has all the swagger of a colonel in the Pentagon circa 1965 to 1975. He’s a real troublemaker here, if you hear what I’m screaming. Sure, he hams it up, but based against the surrounding story, give the guy some concessions. He’s supposed to be the heavy.

Technical sh*t. Might as well be a shopping list. More like a grab bag actually. Like, you ever try to keep to the list when you bound out to Wegman’s or wherever only to come home with myriad different stuff? Reign‘s like that. All lot of good stuff squeezed against, “Oh brother.” For each good bit, there’s a distraction. The straight drama is forced, almost cheesy. Despite Bale being a solid actor, occasionally his classical training interferes with the deliberate stupidity of the movie. A small stripe of VanZandt would’ve helped here.

Reign may be crisp and bouncy, but that’s at first. The pacing—quit groaning, lest you get the lash again—is inconsistent. First the film flies, then drags. From the genuinely engaging chopper chase scene to when VanZandt busts out the battle-axe (really) I was like “what the?/oh yeah,” the film had me. But the creeping through wasted London and the whole “meaning of life” navel-gazing, well, buoyancy starts to peter off here. This disrupts any genuine tension in the story. We’re left only with curiosity, namely, “Where the heck are we going here?” We slowly cease to care about our characters, just wanting to reach a point where everything makes sense. We are dealing with nonsense, true, but even kooky movies shouldn’t unintentionally make us baffled. Reign’ plot progression winds down. The story may be hinky, but its gotta get somewhere. Remember, three act structure?

Don’t get me started with the injections again.

All the pieces have to fall into some kind of order. Bowman wrote for TV. Episodic television on a primarily S/F show. Proper S/F/fantasy process: the Maguffin should be the raison d’être on a minimal level via dialogue and/or melodrama in order to build up steam for the real deal in the third act. Well, the third acts gets soggy, as if Bowman wasn’t sure where to go after all the bombast. The steam gradually evaporates. The big showdown, instead of going out with a proverbial bang, fizzles out into a low rent version of Jaws’ finale. We get that big head of steam built up, and the final confrontation devolves into farting and all sunny. It’s kind of a letdown. But the CGI was solid at least. Soundtrack was goo, too.

Here’s the hell of it though, Reign may have dragons and a shorn Matty, there’s an allegory here somewhere. It’s the most subtle thing about a film decided not very subtle (read: battle-axe). There’s a clever device, an undercurrent if you will (and you will. Refresh your beverage?) at work here. Beneath all the fire and ash, we ain’t really talkin’ dragon slaying in Reign. We have two camps trying to solve the same problem. Here it’s culture clash, territoriality, vestiges of civilization trying to make an argument for which is better and will ultimately triumph with survival. We have the passive Brits bounced against the gung-ho Americans. Here’s where real tension lies, but it’s buried underneath the overly alpha plot. Tension via miscommunications. It’s never overt, but it might raise eyebrows if you look for it beneath all the histrionics. Foreshadowing maybe. In sum, the Brit keeps his shirt on; the Yank tears his off. This is all about class warfare.

But in the endgame, all the clutter makes Reign feel one-note. It’s fun in fits and starts, but gets muddled with dross and distractions. I felt that a movie about an end-of-the-world, fire-breathing dragons, screaming and scattering people would result in a lot more oomph. There’s a lot of good sh*t, but it gets all scrambled over the course of 100 minutes. It can leave you bewildered and with a headache.

Speaking of bewildered, we gotta do something about them soiled shorts. Phew. I think another latte is out of the question. By the by, you got any inquiries, like what the Black Oil was all about?

*spits out bite guard, commences to chew through leather straps*

Sorry, Mom.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservations. Like I said, lot of cool stuff here, bogged down by the eventual uncool stuff I mentioned above. I guess you gotta watch this with the proper mindset, namely one under the influence of weed and Sterno. BTW, McConaughey got no hair here.

Stray Observations…

  • Reenacting Star Wars in a church. Can we say meta?
  • There are fire extinguishers everywhere. Wink.
  • Was that Dr Bashir? (answer: yes)
  • “Only one thing worse than dragons: Americans.” Voting lines have been drawn.
  • How’d VanZandt get the US tanks overseas? I must’ve missed something.
  • The Jimi bit was corny.
  • “Dig your own holes. Die in ’em.” I remember Lolapalooza, too.
  • “This town’s gone to Hell.”
  • Call me silly, but it’s nice to hear Wooderson’s Texas twang again. With or without a precise hairline (okay, I’ll lay of the bald sh*t now. Good thing I’m done. For many reasons).

Next Installment…

A kidnapping’s gone down in Boston, but it may for the best. Sh*tty home, druggy mom, unsafe neighborhood. Whatever. In the end, she’s Gone Baby Gone.

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