RIORI Vol 3, Installment 48: Breck Eisner’s “Sahara” (2005)


The Players…

Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lennie James, Lambert Wilson, Rainn Wilson (no relation) and William H Macy, with Glynn Turman and Delroy Lindo.

The Story…

While investigating the history of a lost Civil War treasure ship in Egypt, adventurer Dirk Pitt stumbles upon an epidemic that’s contaminating the water table. And the story goes ever deeper, with evil industrialists, power hungry warlords and even the desert itself hell-bent on keeping Pitt from his quarry and stemming the epidemic.

Just yer typical day at NUMA.

The Rant…

When I was li’l kid, VCRs were a big deal.

In the early to mid 80s these miraculous home video watching gizmos were (finally) sold at reasonable prices. A decent machine could set you back $400 in 80s dollars. Not everyone in your neighborhood to afford one though, despite all the video rentals popping up everywhere. There were videos a-plenty to be rented at Blockbuster, The Wall, Hollywood Video, your local supermarket, the veterinarian, Neptune, etc. But of course you still had to have the damned player. What to do? What to do?

One could rent a unit for an unreasonable price in questionable condition for maybe 24 hours. More if you were sly enough to rent one when Daylight Savings ended. But that was a crapshoot with an emphasis on crap. Back in the Stone Age my dad rented a machine and a bunch of flicks to watch for my tenth birthday party. I’ll spare you the details. My dad got the overheated thingamabob to work with a hack akin to jamming a matchbook in your car’s tape deck (and if that analogy doesn’t date me, no girl ever will). Not long after that we got our own VHS. Better safe and alla dat.

Another popular remedy for the video deprived was a neighborhood viewing party. The folks who had the VCR would invite friends over with a selection of rented tapes. Votes were taken, snacks were eaten, and a consensus was reached on to watch that night. Democracy in action. Warms your heart to be in these United States. Amen.

*Where the f*ck is he going with this? I swore I saw Penelope Cruz’ name up there. Get to it.*

Getting to it. It was at one of these particular parties that I first caught Raiders Of The Lost Ark. My buddies’ folks got a fresh machine and they invited my ‘rents, my sisters and me to hunker down in front of the boob tube for a night’s insanity. First time I got see Indy in action. The whip. The hat. The snakes. Boy howdy.

I didn’t get it.

Settle down. I was ten. I mean, I had a vague idea of what was going on well before the Nazis’ faces melted like chocolate bunnies in a blast furnace. I mostly wondered what Han Solo was up to in the desert there. The guy who made the film—Spiel-something. Maybe you’ve heard of him—did that flick I saw with the boy and his pet alien which I found funny and also made me fall in love with Drew Barrymore. I was six. Don’t judge me.

Anywho, that big rock thing was cool. The rest of Raiders failed me. I was ten then. I had bigger concerns regarding where’d I’d score more Nerds candy and when the local pool would open for the summer. Them Lego models ain’t gonna build themselves, neither.

So I saw it, mostly just to know I saw it. Bucket list entry number jillion in the can. But just because I didn’t “get” Raiders didn’t mean I didn’t dig it. Well, not in the traditional way. Either due to the ragtag video/audio quality of the movie, I got it into my sugar-deprived, pre-puber skull that action movies should look like this. I don’t mean how Raiders looked. I mean the aesthetic. Adventure movies should look grainy, ragtag and knockabout. It enhanced the rough-and-ready flavor of Raiders for me. I may not have gotten the movie, but I did like what I saw. Melting Nazis and all.

I guess it’s hindered my views on adventure flicks over the past three decades. I could’ve gotten behind a lot more films like Raiders if I wasn’t looking through a cracked TV screen. I have, but the weird bite I got from Indy’s first cinematic adventure (or The Thief Of Baghdad, or the live-action The Jungle Book, or the original Clash Of The Titans) left an indelible mark on my movie mind. Adventure movies should be scruffy, ramshackle, unpretentious and devoid of anything slick. They should be all about gee whiz bucky gizmo splash and dash and flair. No sweetening. Never sweetening. Never shine the corners. Keep it grubby. Make it earthy, chewy even. Indiana Jones was filthy and sweaty for the better part of Raiders (so was Marion if you thing about it). I liked the grime. Sure, the action was cool even if the plot eluded my juvenile mind, but I thought the whiz-bang was better for the quality of the video, audio and (now understood to be) DIY special effects.

Ain’t nostalgia great? And I never got beat up by bullies and had my GoBots stolen. Weep.

Keeping my palsied view on how adventure films should look and feel, I’ve kept my eyes out for some glints from the sun, regardless of when a film was released. Trying to combat my myopia I guess. Beyond that ten-year-old-kiddie bias I still am a sucker for silly swashbuckling. At heart, who isn’t that loves movies?

That being said, no surprise here that during my movie sifting, Raiders kindred spirit Sahara caught my attention. Story sounded cool. Exotic locations. 12st Century swashbuckling. Hell, Matt McConaughey starring as an action hero? With Steve Zahn no less as his derring-do sidekick no less (I’m as shocked as you are)? Into the queue with you, Sahara.

Did the flick match up with the hazy, grainy memory of yours truly’s rough-and-ready ideals?

Definitely sorta…

The Natural Underwater &  Marine Agency (or NAMBLA. Sorry, couldn’t resist), better known as NUMA, is the authority concerning undersea excavation for lost treasures and edifices from ancient civilizations. Underwater archaeologists is a simpler and more apt title for their elite crew. And the most elite—and most driven—diver is Dirk Pitt (McConaughey). Sure, uncovering lost history on the ocean floor is wonderful for science and scholars, but at heart Pitt is a treasure hunter, a modern day pirate. But instead of stealing elicit booty it’s the thrill of the hunt that drives him. It’s that rush that’s taken him and his NUMA crew to the Sahara in search of a lost treasure ship. The CSS Texas, a Civil War Confederate ironclad that disappeared from the historical record 130 years ago. As well as the planet.

Wait a minute. Ironclads weren’t designed for ocean-going travel. And to Africa no less? What’s up with that?

There’s the mystery. The Texas was laden with thousands of dollars in gold coinage, ostensibly minted to “fund” the CSA’s desperate armed forces. Locating such a score is too much for Pitt to resist, no matter how cockamamie the historical record is. There’s a lost ship packed to the gunwales with gold out there in the Sahara, and by God Pitt and the NUMA crew are going to find it!

It’s never that easy.

World Health Organization (not NAMBLA) Dr Eva Rojas (Cruz) has more pressing matters on her mind. Bigger than lost gold. A terrible plague has been ripping through Mali, leaving its victims blind, crazed and ultimately dead. She and her associate Dr Frank Hopper (Turman) suspect something more sinister is afoot with this epidemic. It’s spread too fast, too sudden to be considered a natural phenomenon. Rojas decides it’s necessary to travel deeper into Mali to better assess the damage. But Mali is war-torn, thanks to the charismatic and psychotic Major Kazim (James) who appears to have some personal stakes in keeping this plague—and any potential treatment—off any record.

When Dr Rojas digs a little too deeply Kazim’s thugs aim to take her out. Only by happenstance NUMA and Pitt come to her rescue. Eva finds herself on NUMA’s flagship and welcomed aboard by Pitt’s goofball aide-de-camp Algiers “Al” Giordano (Zahn). She explains her strange circumstances and Al figures that maybe his best bud Dirk and him might be able to lend a hand. Hell, they were going upriver anyway. Traveling into dangerous, fractured Mali to find a cure for a plague? No sweat.

So long as they find some lost treasure along the way…

Right here’s a prime example why RIORI exists. Sahara was too big to fail, and yet it did. Financially, if not with the fun factor. It has nothing really to do with gaging the movie’s quality, but it did pique my interest. Here’s the numbers.

If we recall The Standard, any clunky movie that hovers into my view might have a poor (but not necessarily awful) box office turnout. Sahara did indeed fit the bill under that criterion. But here’s the weird thing—maybe another telling thing about Hollyweird’s ever-increasing sense of overblown entitlement to more money for less art, and f*ck you general public—by the numbers the movie did do well at the theaters. At least on the surface.

In 2005, Sahara opened at number one at the box office. Good for the cast and crew. Opening weekend yielded almost $20 million. Again, not bad. The overall takeaway when the sun set was approximately $120 million. Impressive. Where’s the whole “sh*tty turnout” argument? That big buck-twenty is a lot of cheddar. ‘Splain dat away, Mr Smartass Movie Guy!

This is where that damned devil math comes in. Despite Sahara faring pretty well here and abroad, its gargantuan budget of $130 million for production and over $80 million in distribution expenses the film barely recouped half of its original budget. Sahara lost about $105 million at the end of the day, and contested by various accounting firms as to what the ultimate fallout was. I think there was even some government oversight committee slapped together to get to the financial bottom as to what’s up with certain big-budget flicks’ production waltzing with box office failure.

You can at least credit Sahara for originality in that regard.

Okay. Back to me being judgmental and vicious.

Sahara did offer the epic sweep of a globetrotting adventure movie, replete with intrigue, action, cool toys, a dashing hero, a Costello to his Abbott, and a nasty villain we love to hate. All necessary things, BTW (and having Cruz aboard didn’t hurt none, neither). However, it wasn’t terribly original. But what the hell? Sure, treasure hunt movies are not a new thing. Hell, all of the Indiana Jones movies were about our titular archaeologist pursuing some ancient, valuable trinket, gewgaw and/or dangerous religious doohickey. Well worn ground here. Even Dirk Pitt’s alter ego, adventure writer Clive Cussler might be pointed out in a line up for being a fart away from Ian Fleming. And I ain’t talking in the Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang sense. He wrote the source material, by the way. Not Fleming. Focus, people.

So yeah, Sahara didn’t score any points in the originality department. There are only so many ways you can toss that pizza, really. It was fun, though. Kinda. Watching it I wasn’t actively thinking about Indy, nor my antediluvian VHS days either. In all honestly it was hard to do either, but more on that later. It’s that dang “kinda” qualifier that plagued my viewing experience. I wanted to get into Sahara, but I found it a challenge to get and/or keep engaged in the movie. Let alone follow the complicated, if not byzantine plot. Plots.

I coined a phrase in my noggin watching Sahara, mindful of my criteria regarding adventure movies (including the grainy, rough-and-ready stuff): the flick had a certain flair, sorta there. It wasn’t like Sahara was trying hard to be Indy turf or a Roger Moore-era 007 experience (yes, I said Moore and not Connery. Ever see The Man With The Golden Gun? Boom). In fact it moved along pretty nicely, thank you.

Just not consistently.

That’s a big uh-oh considering adventure movies. Sahara felt, well, constipated. Struggling under its own weight. Other adventure films have a pretty straight line to follow. A to B quest, and whatever hijinks ensue to give it some necessary flair. Again with Raiders (let’s just use that as our yardstick. Not sure if a lot of you ever caught Alan Quartermain serials), Indy and Marion are off to find the Ark. There was no real need for her bar burning down. Nor Indy slugging it out with the bruiser under the flying wing. There’s a school of thought that suggests even Indy himself wasn’t essential to the plot (but who else could deliver those high decibel, meaty punches?). But they added spice—flair—to an otherwise pretty run-of-the-mill actioner.

Sahara has some of that flair (the opening scenes, Eva stuck in the well, the raid on the solar farm, Dirk and Al jerryrigging that “skiff”) but due to sluggish pacing in fits and starts—including the chase scenes, of which there are many—it gets all bogged down. A lull in the breeze whispers at the corners, and a lot of that is straying from the tried-and-true and definitely unoriginal formula of decent adventure films: following that straight line.

Sahara‘s plotting is rather convoluted. I mean it’s easy to follow where the story is going, but there are so many jerks and jabs it’s akin to watching a UFC match on Valium. That looked cool. What was it? Whatever. Pass the Doritos.

The waters got rather muddied with Sahara. I think I’m not making much sense here, getting to the very nubbin of truth, but the whole plot was schizo. Sahara‘s promises of straight action and adventure got dashed with the “evil corporation” story. I mean the “ravaging warlord” story. No, it was the whole “Civil War legend/river-runs” story that popped up in and out of the main plot proper (if there really was one). It was all tad tricky to follow. Sahara didn’t have a throughput. It had a chess match. With camels. That much I was certain. There were camels. And that nebbish from The Office, too.

I’m also not sure if the heavy, micro-managed story sunk a lot of Sahara‘s flair and fun. Like I said, those things were there. But under the weight of the story’s delivery, a lot of the verve and urgeny got lost in the mix. Most of the humor fell flat, as well as being too broad. Our cast, although competent if not likable, felt held back (save Zahn, who’s a great character actor. Too bad he doesn’t catch a lot of work. He’s hilarious). If director Eisner was aiming for a 21st Century Raiders feel, he did it with a muted style. Some flair, sorta there. Blame the scenarists.

What I’m getting at is that Sahara was somewhat low-key for a supposedly rowdy action/adventure. I think think I know why, too. Boink, big surprise. The ostensible alpha plot of Pitt and Co searching for the lost treasure ship swiftly gets sidelined by the beta plot about the plague. With that, the whole adventure film feel slips into a socio-politco-eco meditation Trojan Horsed onto my TV. If an action flick has a message, it shouldn’t be overt. Gets in the way of the explosions, distressed damsels and dancing tigers on angel dust. The plot got convoluted, the treasure hunt thing got backburner’d and my attention drifted too often.

You get what I’m screaming now? If my childhood standard of how adventure films should look, sound and especially feel then Sahara grew not rough and tumble enough. It came across as ultimately overwrought and overproduced, like when George Lucas would not. Quit. F*cking around with the original Star Wars trilogy. That’s another thing. Sahara‘s big budget execution left nary a whit of character. All that cash made damn sure that all the bells and whistles were in full blare as the kitchen sink got tossed out the window and hopefully stuck. Sahara tried to have its cake. Tried to make too much sense. A lot of the adventure stuff got lost with the many diverging and converging plot threads, too much exposition, simultaneous languid and ADHD pacing (with the precious few scenes of serious action) and trying to convey a message, before God. In that vein, too much expo kills an action movie. It’s called an action movie, remember? Shut up and dance, already.

Where was the scruffiness? The feeling of adventure? The underlying lo-fi ethos that didn’t rely on CGI? The quirks and jokes and plausible denial that, yeah, Indy can cling to that sub’s conning tower all the way across the Mediterranean? It was there once and a while (and what was there was great), but the output was dizzying, and not it a whip-cracking kind of way. All the cool sh*t got hampered by the stuff I just mentioned. All of Sahara‘s clean and dense delivery didn’t leave a lot of room for unnecessary bits like shooting the swordsman to expedite matters. Hey, we all cross the median once in a while.

In other words, Sahara lacked charm. With all the potential, where was the charm here? Sahara didn’t have much, if any, that’s what. It lacked spark. It didn’t have that homespun quality that I enjoy, if not expect in adventure movies. Sahara was excessive, overly laden with expo and a rather heavy-handed message. It was too long, or at least felt that way. Too many intertwining plot threads. Too complex for your average, workaday adventure flick. Too much time demanding audiences to think. Death at the box office there. Sahara could’ve been so much more, if only it used less.

I’ll reel it back. Sahara had its fair share of obvious bright points. On the good side, Sahara‘s casting was impeccable. C’mon. Raiders had a super cast, from Ford to Black to Elliot for Pete’s sake. Despite the swamp our heroes had to muck through, at least Eisner knew how to assemble a great adventuring cast. I feel it was the best part of the movie.

Matt (I’ll refer to him as that because I have a bitch of a time spelling McConaughey) was a damn good maverick hero. He sure seemed to like being Dirk Pitt (even though his delivery was a lot like Wooderson only with money and a boat. Still trying to score that almost out-of-reach opportunity. All right, all right, all right). Matt’s glee was infectious, and a far cry from his more “serious” roles as of late. You couldn’t wait to hang out with this Dirk guy, either across the ocean or at your neighborhood cookout. Matt was cocky without being a doosh. He was sharp in a MacGuyver sense. He played the whole leading man/rogue thing to the hilt. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Now Steve Zahn’s Al was a stitch. The guy’s come a long way since Caroline In The City. Right, he’s supposed to be Pitt’s best bud and sidekick. Zahn’s Al is played like an even balance between clueless and the man behind the curtain. Batman couldn’t truly be Batman without trusty Robin. Or Bucky Barnes. Even Clifford the big, red dog. Zahn got all the best lines, and toed the line between dolt and savant equally well. Who knew how vital the right ballcap could be in social interactions?

Cruz, despite being the implied lady in need of a hero, held herself well. Both with character and devotion to the cause (message) without overplaying her hand. Maybe like you, I got acquainted with Cruz via psychodrama Vanilla Sky or the hard-edged Blow. The woman could never carry a movie, but pair her with the right actors? Box office gold. She’s a very good supporting actress, protean in all her roles. Her Eva is no different. If you consider it, she is the impetus that gets Sahara off and running, not some lost Confederate gold. Despite the pregnant plot, Cruz’ Rojas was the most effervescent element to keep the movie afloat despite its own weight.

So needless to say, I loved Sahara‘s cast. Macy was fun. James was menacing. Lambert was slime. Wilson was the resident dork. Despite all the hallmarks of a straight ahead adventure film getting hot and heavy with Sahara, Eisner sure was a whiz when it came to working his chess board. It kept the film on track—albeit against the sandy grain of the story—which in turn allowed that vital flair now and again. Gave me enough hope to keep watching the thing.

It’s that kind of smarts that made Sahara so disappointing to me. I had to watch the movie twice (never a good sign) to both “get” the plot and see if I missed any flashes in the pan. I did and I didn’t. Overall, neglecting my myopic view regarding watching adventure flicks via sh*tty magnetic tape equating quality, Sahara was a good, bloated, overreaching flick with a great cast and a plot as thick as molasses in January with too big a budget to demand urgency. Like I said, schizo. Frustrating.

So thank you. This installment was brought to you courtesy of a little smear of Vaseline on the lens of memory. VHS sucks on toast against DVDs, Blu-Rays, YouTube feeds and bedeviled childhood wonder. Be kind, rewind.

*whip crack*

“I am so tired of being shot at!”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Sahara tried hard to be fun. But it tried. Half the time it was fun, then that pesky plot kept rearing its head. Mind the mixture. It’s good it fits and starts, but then that’s what I’ve heard about smack. Party at the Moon Tower then.

Stray Observations…

  • “Hey, my dad collects coins.”
  • I do love the 70s soundtrack.
  • That was the silliest chase scene ever.
  • That whole “Dirk Pitt Adventure” tag in the opening credits: was Sahara supposed to launch a franchise? For those not paying attention, it didn’t.
  • “You should put the money to better use…”
  • Breck? Isn’t that a kind of shampoo?
  • “I have some bad news about your boat…”
  • “Nobody cares about Africa!” All too true.
  • I gotta admit, the improvised windjammer scene made me smile.
  • “I’ll get the bomb. You get the girl.” “Deal.” Go! Team! Venture!
  • “Hi! How are ya?”

Next Installment…

You can’t keep anything quiet in a small down, be it an affair, a crime or an insistent need to abscond with millions of dollars to get the f*ck out of said small town. The Ice Harvest is on deck, folks. I’ll think of a more clever tagline the next time out. Peace and chicken grease, bitches.

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.