By Nick Nunziata

Rob (The X-Files) Bowman

Christian (American Psycho, Empire of the Sun) Bale, Matthew (Dazed and Confused, Frailty) McConaughey, Izabella (Goldeneye, Vertical Limit) Scorupco, Gerard (Dracula 2000) Butler

A great summer gets greater.

Touchstone Pictures has a little gem on its hands, and I feel it’s my job to help polish it.

The idea of a film about dragons laying siege to the modern (OK, actually a little in the future) world seems like something we could only wish for, let alone us having a film with a nice fat budget and a truly talented group of people working on it. In a business where it takes DECADES just to get Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino to appear in the same frame, the thought of a film like this making it to theaters is a Herculean effort. Especially when you consider the amazing amount of compromises that happen with each sequential draft, casting decision, promotional opportunity, and focus group along the way.

Literally, this film could have been Dragonheart or Aliens after the smoke cleared, and where it went right or wrong in the process would be a blur. Not only has it emerged victorious, it’s also that rare film that could be viewed as a science fiction, fantasy, disaster, or even a war film and not leave the mainstream audience hamstrung trying to figure out how dragons could exist in the first place.

Reign of Fire begins as a young Quinn Abercromby is visiting his mother (Borg queen Alice Krige) in a construction dig in London at the very wrong time. As the crew finds a void in the rock beneath the town, Quinn is chosen to squeeze in and check it out. As is the case when you or I choose to squeeze into voids, there’s a nasty behemoth hibernating for the moment to rise up and kick major Homo Erectus ass.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and humanity is a scattered and hungry race. Dragons have scorched the Earth to feed on its ash (a great change of pace from them just wanting flesh, blood, and free subscriptions to The Sporting News), and the few remaining men and women from the holocaust of damage both man and dragon made are just trying to stay alive in hopes the beasts die off.

Kind of like I am with tennis moms.

Leading the ragtag group is an older Quinn (now portrayed by the shockingly handsome and gifted Christian Bale), haunted by his past and more concerned with keeping the children safe and educated than taking the fight to the scaly burners. As he and his flock live scared in their castle (because modern architects don’t build office buildings to withstand catapult fire like they used to), their chances for survival shrink with each burning of their crops by dragonfire.

Enter Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) and his group of post apocalyptic soldiers. A group bent on finding the beasts and bringing them down, the heavily armed gang clashes directly with peaceful community… but who has the right game plan?

The beauty is finding out.

Director Rob Bowman has stepped firmly out of the shadow of The X-Files and done a phenomenal job of not hawking any recognizable style and creating a world that’s both bleak and optimistic, living firmly in the realm of films like Aliens and Pitch Black but with a little of his own polished flash. The film could have easily coasted on CGI dragons or the bleach bypassed flavor of the month music video style, but instead takes comfort in looking like it could have been made in 1978, 1988, or 2005, but with modern FX.

He’s the real hero of the project, because there’s no baggage with him. He’s got the chops of just about any filmmaker around but doesn’t have the expectations of a David Fincher or the one dimensional visual assault of a Tarsem or Michael Bay.

The result is a helmer who lets his support staff shine and doesn’t get in the way and delivers a superior product without feeling the need to stamp his signature all over it.

It doesn’t hurt having a surprisingly robust quartet of lead actors, all of whom seem like odd choices for their roles but ones who rise to the occasion equally in roles that could have easily been thankless “look good next to the effects” performances.

Christian Bale’s lone cheeseball career choice was Shaft, and he still managed to kick start a few laughs in that facepunch of a film. Here he does the unthinkable in his lead role. He ACTS.

I’ll be damned if this isn’t a summer season of honest to goodness acting in blockbuster films. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, and now Christian Bale all realize that the core of ANY FILM whether it’s an independent film about a struggling coffee house or a tale about dragon slaying is a crew that tells their story with a straight, convincing face and helps the viewer be transported. Bale does that in spades, whether he’s telling stories to the little kids in his castle (the film’s funniest scene, especially for fans of space operas) or squaring off against the maniacal Van Zan. Bale’s a gifted actor, and this role makes you wonder how a role like Batman would work with his mindset under the cowl.

Matthew McConaughey gets to have all the fun. Grunting and chewing scenery like a goat in a greenhouse, he gets to be larger than life and twice as entertaining. Overacting? Sure, but in the good Clint Eastwood, Bruce Campbell, Treat Williams, Michael Biehn way. To counterbalance the internal, British demeanor of Bale a brash, cocky, invincible Oklahoma boy feels just about right and Matt has a lot of fun with it.

Chomping a cigar like J.J. Jameson, balder than Bruce Willis sans airbrush, and covered in more tattoos than Venice Beach… he’s a nice burst of finely aged cheese with the moderately classy glass of wine provided by Bale’s performance.

Izabella Scorupco has the most thankless role, playing a helicopter pilot sidekick to Van Zan but she still manages to do more than look ravishing (it’s good to know ladies still get access to makeup in a dragon burnt future) and get some moderately meaty scenes in between bouts of screaming orders into her headset.

Gerard Butler represents the 2nd time in two years and actor I loathed came on strong in a summer film and erased my hate for them. The first was Rufus Sewell in A Knight’s Tale last year, who erased all my Dark City venom in a fell swoop. This time Butler sends the bitter taste of Dracula 2000 into the ether with a performance here that proves the actor has… gasp… a personality.

He gets to be the more down to Earth counterpart to Bale’s mostly dead serious character, infusing a little warmth into the castle dwellers and serves as the all important Luke to Bale’s Darth (just see the film, all will be explained). A bad choice to play the most celebrated bloodsucker, the actor gets to use his real accent and have little fun here. Good stuff.

Then there’s the REAL reason people will be seeing the film.

Dragons. Lots of them.

Cinematically, dragons are a mixed lot. Vermithrax from Dragonslayer still remains the most impressively realized non-CGI beastie, while Draco of Dragonheart was pretty neat until he opened his mouth to talk, and the flying creatures of Dungeons & Dragons were mediocre BEFORE Jeremy Irons shat all over the screen with his performance.

These guys have a lot more in common with the former, but unlike that early 80’s creation they breathe, fly, and move like living creatures. There’s no close up shots of obviously puppeteered creations of latex and gelatin and armature nor jerkily animated sculpts of clay… but collections of polygons and pixels that take their cue from Jurassic Park rather than Emmerich’s Godzilla. They’re animals, not money shots with eyes. They look cool as heck, but they don’t simply serve as distracting eye candy wrapped in a bland shell. While the scientific aspect of the film has apparently been toned down from original drafts, there’s still a physiological realness to them… more like hawks than the Spinosaurus.

Function first, coolness second.

It’s certainly not PERFECT, but the elements together add up to make a unique and special movie that runs the risk of being overlapped by the competition. It’s also surprisingly funny at times, and not in a cheap laughs kind of way. Often you’ll see a visual gag, or a beast near a familiar landmark or product that elicits a laugh and it’s kind of a conceit. Here, they accomplish some laughs with little touches that make the difference. Keep an eye out for a little scene involving a “medical emergency” that had us all tickled for the five minutes that followed it, a scene involving a flask, a scene where Quinn points out where London is in reference to their castle, and the Star Wars scene I’ve hinted at.

They’re little touches of much needed personality in a film that pretty much starts with mankind going the way of Microsoft BOB. In a film as dark and bleak as this, those little efforts make it a film that you want to see again instead of a neat bookmark in a crowded summer.

It may not be the best film of the year or even the summer, but it eats the lunch of most of its competition and deserves your hard earned bucks as much as much as anything in the marketplace. It doesn’t scream for a sequel, doesn’t ride a trend, and respects its viewers. Those grounds alone make it a rarity, add to that all I’ve just typed and the fact that just about the whole CHUD screening crowd has a blast with the movie and you have all you need to know you need to give it a chance.

Make this film a hit. Please.

8.1 out of 10