Horror in the Aughts, Issue 3: REIGN OF FIRE – A Capital B Movie

[Editor’s Note: Our very own Eric Mayo came to me in December with an idea for a new series. While he plans to still chime in about video games from time to time (including our delayed best of 2023 series which will appear before the end of February), 2024 is the year in which he’ll be putting together some great pieces highlighting his favorite horror films from the first decade of our current century… or as many refer to it, “the Aughts”. Since this decade was also a very important one for my horror tastes and sensibilities, I will be joining him in this venture, highlighting some of my faves, as well. Each installment will be dubbed an “issue” in keeping with our early 2000s theme – think of it as our very own horror fanzine… something that punks, film nerds, and other weirdos like us will remember as a big part of the 90s and aughts. If you head over to the first issue, you can read Eric explaining the column’s inspiration himself – thepaintedman]

I love B movies when A level talent gets involved. I am an advocate of 1994’s corny and fun/awful Van Damme vehicle Street Fighter, but the real joy is seeing thespian actor Raul Julia (in his final screen performance) relishing every second with scene chewing glory. Same for the period piece cannibal horror comedy Ravenous, a joyous wild film with lead performances by indie darlings Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. I love it when actors, who are well respected in the industry, are not afraid to just have a little fun with their movie role choices. Which brings us to my horror choice for the year 2002. What if I told you there was an amazing movie about dragons taking over modern-day Earth? What if this amazing movie involved a group of overzealous dragon hunters, who are led by a good ole’ country boy Matthew McConaughey, that encounter a gated castle community led by the always serious and stoic Christian Bale? You would have Rob Bowman’s glorious action epic Reign of Fire. 

In present-day London, 12-year-old Quinn (Ben Thornton) witnesses the awakening of a hibernating dragon, the result of a construction dig supervised by his mother (the always wonderful Alice Krige), which ultimately leads to her untimely death as it escapes into the world. Fast forward twenty years, Quinn (now played by Christian Bale) oversees a refortified castle community with his mate Creedy (Gerard Butler), protecting themselves from the onslaught of dragons that have taken claim to much of the surface world, just simply trying to create a normal semblance of reality. One day, a group of people in tanks and trucks, led by Denton Van Zan (an unhinged Matthew McConaughey) with 2nd in command Alex Jensen (Izabella Scorupco). They claim to be building a landing strip near Manchester and needed a place to rest and reset after some losses before moving on, but they’re gung-ho dragon hunters seeking to replenish their ranks to go find the only male Dragon. All the dragons they have killed have been female, and after discovering that they house eggs in their body, believe only a single male dragon exists that goes around fertilizing them. They believe this male dragon is residing in London and they need an army to go after it. After Denton’s pilgrimage to London is cut short by mass deaths from the infamous male dragon + the subsequent assault it does on the castle community, Quinn reluctantly joins up with Denton and Jensen to travel to where it all started, London, to end this once and for all.

Reign of Fire is a great solid example of a capital B movie. The plot is basic and absurd in equal measures, filled with tons of great action sequences, and it has one of the more outlandish caricatures in terms of performances ever, the southern twang of insanity that is Matthew McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan. From the minute McConaughey opens his mouth, he is chewing the shit out of any scenery or every actor that happens to get in his way. Shaved head and with a scraggly beard, he brings such a palpable energy in contrast to the more stoic performances around him. Christian Bale is perfectly serviceable in his role as the downer Quinn, bringing his usual gravity and presence to the role. You believe he could be the leader of a group of survivors, and you can believe he would do what he must do when the time came for it. Gerard Butler perfectly conveys a sense of conscience or balance for Bale’s Quinn, to not always think about survival but to just try and enjoy life, keeping some humanity in the horror all around. A great example of this is the delightful sequence where Bale and Butler re-enact the “I am your father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back for a bunch of young children and pass it off as their own made-up story. Scorupco is a striking and intense presence as Van Zan’s main lieutenant. She has decent chemistry with McConaughey and Bale and is a warm welcome presence to the testosterone-fueled environment. All of these great actors are handled well by director Rob Bowman, who is a veteran of multiple episodes of The X-Files. It’s not the work of an auteur per se, but he clearly knows his way around an action scene and keeps the pacing moving at a decent clip. In terms of action sequences, we get a great example of what those gung-ho dragon killers do with a skydive sequence where multiple people jump from a helicopter and attempt to take down a single dragon from the air. It’s quite thrilling, has a kinetic energy to the cinematography and shows just how dangerous killing even one of these creatures can be. The finale in London at the construction site nest is goofy fun, with some still decent CGI effects on the main male dragon.  This sequence also includes the most iconic shots of the entire movie, and it’s so batshit crazy and wild that I dare not spoil it, but trust me, you will know it when you see it.

Reign of Fire is a dreary, gray and brown action sci-fi flick with the last remnants fighting back against the deluge of winged serpents that have now infested the entire planet. Solid actors giving their all through and through for a B movie premise is always fun. Bale is a solid protagonist to guide the movie along, but McConaughey is the real gem here, so over the top and charged to the max that you just can’t help but get invested. It also doesn’t hurt that the runtime is a sensible 100 minutes, not overstaying it’s welcome while also hanging around long enough to deliver the goods. Even if dragons aren’t your thing, I implore you to give this movie a shot. It’s certainly not perfect, but McConaughey alone is worth the price of admission.

Eric Mayo
Horror Lover / Resident Evil Fanatic
While Evil Dead 2 is my first horror love, my cozy horror that I always return to is the Friday the 13th franchise, though I am known to thrown on Tremors or even Malignant at a moment’s notice for some good old absurd fun. However, first and foremost, my most loved piece of horror anything was, is and always will be the Resident Evil series. Wesker for life!
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